Heavy weather. Superstorm Sandy, seen here from space, wreaked havoc at some research facilities.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon; data courtesy NASA/NOAA GOES Project Science team.

Heavy weather. Superstorm Sandy, seen here from space, wreaked havoc at some research facilities.

A Year Later, Researchers Still Recovering From Superstorm Sandy

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

One year after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the eastern United States, flooding research laboratories and knocking out nearly one-half of a coastal research radar network, some scientists are still picking up the pieces.

“We still have three radar stations down in northern New Jersey, but we’re hoping to get the money to replace them in November,” says Gerhard Kuska, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Association Coastal Ocean Observing System, which helps run a string of 41 radars stretching from Massachusetts to North Carolina. When Sandy came ashore on the night of 29 October 2012, the storm’s high winds and surging tides destroyed four of the 5- to 7-meter-tall radar towers and damaged another 13. Failing electrical grids also “totally fried some of our computer hard drives and electrical components,” Kuska adds.

Since then, “we’ve really been piecing things together with glue and duct tape,” he says. “There was no money to fix this stuff, and we didn’t have a lot of spares, so we temporarily took money out of other” programs to replace the radars, which a coalition of universities and government agencies use to study offshore winds and currents. They also invested in new backup power and computing systems. “We’re much better prepared for a storm now,” Kuska says, “but it has been expensive.” Financial help is coming soon, however: Earlier this year, Congress passed a $50 billion storm relief bill that includes funding to cover the approximately $2 million cost of restoring the damaged radars.

Repairs are also still under way at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory in Fort Hancock, New Jersey, which sits just north of the storm's landfall. Some 75% of the fish kept by researchers died in the week after the storm, Thomas Noji, chief of the lab’s Ecosystems Processes Division, tells ScienceInsider in an e-mail. The lab itself “weathered Superstorm Sandy surprisingly well relative to our neighbors,” he writes, sustaining “only minimal damage from flooding.  However, the seawater intake piping, which supplies our lab with seawater for experimentation, sustained significant damage.  We also had significant damage to our buildings caused by winds. … But we have fixed the vital support systems to the point that we are again operational.”

“It has been quite a trying year,” John Manderson, a NOAA ecologist at the lab, writes in an e-mail. The lab reopened the day before Christmas 2012, he recalls. But then came the government budget cuts known as the sequester, and then this month’s 16-day shutdown. Through it all, “everybody had been working very hard to get back up and running,” he writes.

At New York University (NYU) in New York City, “[i]t’s really hard to remember how bad it was,” Gordon Fishell, director of NYU’s Smilow Neuroscience Program, told Apoorva Mandavilli of SFARI.org. Some 2500 of Fishell’s experimental mice were drowned when stormwaters flooded his building’s basement, forcing dozens of researchers to relocate. Now, NYU is building new, storm-hardened research laboratories, Mandavilli reports—and the mice will be kept on the third floor.

Posted in Earth, People & Events, Scientific Community