Superstorm Sandy wreaked absolute havoc all along the USA’s east coast, and in addition to the massive flood damage, subsequent fires along the Jersey Shore (among other areas) were devastating. Hurricane Sandy made the Jersey Shore town of Seaside Heights infamous by the shocking photos of their iconic roller coaster in the ocean. A year later the same town suffered a second devastation, when the newly-rebuilt boardwalk burned down. At the time most bystanders scratched their heads and wondered why Seaside Heights had such bad luck – was it cursed? Those with an understanding of electrical engineering realized that the fire was the result of damage already done by Hurricane Sandy. Evidence has come to light that many of the fires were electrical in nature, as both electrical and mechanical systems were damaged by saltwater from ocean floods. By revisiting the placement and maintenance of these systems, we should be able to avoid similar damage from (inevitable) future storms.
Mechanical and electrical systems are often overlooked as having sustained substantial damage during a flood, but perhaps it’s important that we look at this equipment in the same way as we view our internal organs. Hidden within our bodies, they pulse methodically and dependably—until something goes wrong. Superstorm Sandy changed the perception about weather for those living in the New York metropolitan area, as this natural disaster was almost unprecedented in this location. As such, an investigation to assess the damage to know what can be repaired and what needs to be replaced was in order. Electrical systems do not fare well after being flooded: sea water can become heavily polluted as it picks up toxic substances while washing across the urban environment, it’s also highly corrosive. If damaged electrical wiring and contact connections aren’t replaced, they can short circuit and cause fires.
This electrical damage was likely the cause of the devastating fire on the Jersey Shore a year after Sandy. The fire department was unable to arrive in time to extinguish the fire before it had consumed several blocks, as well as the boardwalk of the iconic amusement park.In an article entitled “Most Storm-Related Fires were Electrical”, FDNY Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano stated that: “Storm Sandy created challenges for the Department on every level, from our fire suppression and rescue efforts that night to the painstaking investigative work that followed”. Fire Marshals have determined that most fires were sparked by sea water impacting electrical systems and components in and around these structures.
Electrical systems need to be elevated above the base flood elevation or maximum depth that previous storm event flood waters have reached. Other alternatives could include enclosing circuitry and equipment in submersible housing, or in dry-proofed rooms that are sealed with watertight doors. Historically, electrical and mechanical rooms were often relegated to the building’s basement, but since lower levels are more likely to flood, relocating them to a higher floor might be far wiser.
What can we learn from the aftermath of a major storm that left extensive areas without power at a cost of billions of dollars? We cannot just build the infrastructure back to the way it was since it is more than likely that another storm will occur. Similarly to any surgical procedure, a body cannot be sewn back together until the injury or infection has been dealt with.
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