Superstorm Sandy’s Salty Legacy

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Sal DePrisco (’82) knows full well the value of an NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering degree in chemical engineering. Although he graduated during one of the worst economic recessions in recent memory, he immediately received multiple job offers. He settled on a position with General Foods, working as a Process Engineer in the Plant Engineering Department of Maxwell House Coffee, at the Hoboken, NJ facility. “A million pounds a day were processed there,” he says. “And as a typical kid of the Space Age, growing up fascinated by how things worked, I found it was a terrific place to work. Chemical engineers at Maxwell House are involved in every unit operation we ever learned about in school, and many more we didn’t—filtration, mixing, distillation, reaction, you name it.”

DePrisco, who later launched his own consulting company, Sensible Technical Solutions, is now focusing on a liquid much less beloved—and magnitudes more dangerous—than our morning cup of java: salt water. In early 2013, following Superstorm Sandy, which had devastated the area the previous year, DePrisco and his team were called upon to examine the facilities under the control of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), inspecting and benchmarking the damage caused by contact with the salt water that churned during the storm, and to provide guidance as to future repairs and maintenance.

It was, inarguably, a daunting process. Among the structures they inspected were the Holland Tunnel, which includes numerous areas that motorists never see, such as vent buildings. pump rooms and beneath the roadway; PATH tunnels, passenger stations, electrical substations, and maintenance yards; every major airport in the region, including JFK International, Newark Liberty, and LaGuardia—from the busiest runways to the quietest nooks; Port Jersey, Port Newark, Port Elizabeth and the Brooklyn Piers, an assignment that included the massive gantry cranes used to offload cargo ships; and the entire World Trade Center site.

In all, they recorded almost 250,000 inspection points, taking some 18,000 photos. “These were not cursory inspections,” DePrisco says. “We were on our hands and knees with magnifying glasses.” Conducting an operation from the point of view of a chemical engineer, he explains, requires an eye for the minute. “After Sandy, anyone could see that entire piers had been washed away and that buildings had flooded. That kind of damage is obvious,” he says. “But salt water is insidious. It’s highly corrosive, and it doesn’t matter if it’s touched a surface for 30 seconds or 30 hours. The damage will lay latent, and can manifest months, or even years, later, but it will occur.”

By the end of the first phase of the project, Sensible Technical Solutions had uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars of hidden damage that PANYNJ and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had not found.

DePrisco is looking forward to a new phase of follow-up, which may lead, he strongly hopes, to standards for recovery from salt-water inundation that could be used on a national level. “It’s important that our infrastructure not only get back to pre-catastrophe condition, but that it be even more resilient in the future,” he asserts.

Pictured above: The runway at JFK airport, one of the sites the team investigated after Superstorm Sandy