News / Boundary & Topo / Surveying History

Superstorm Sandy: The (Survey) Miracle of Route 35

A look back at how surveyors rallied in recovery efforts.

November 1, 2013
KEYWORDS GNSS / Land surveying
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Superstorm Sandy—or, officially, Hurricane Sandy—was the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane system and was, after the infamous Katrina, the second-costliest storm in United States’ history. Damage estimates exceed $70 billion. But those simple, stark metrics don’t capture the horror and dismay felt by the people of coastal New Jersey when they began to assess the damage on Oct. 30, the day after landfall. Surges from the storm had absolutely destroyed many familiar landmarks, and even whole islands had disappeared. Residents of Mantoloking, N.J., were shocked to find that a major interchange at Route 35 and County Route 528 had been essentially erased by seawater—Sandy had opened up a 400-foot wide breach between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay. This was more than an inconvenience; the interchange is the only practical connection to Mantoloking, New Jersey’s richest borough, and about 15 smaller communities in Ocean County, located on a long, narrow barrier island.

The missing interchange was just one of many disturbing images that fascinated TV viewers around the globe in the wake of Sandy. But to those who live in

sandy_before
Superstorm Sandy wiped out part of Route 35 in New Jersey. Photo from the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

Ocean County and to Chris Christie, New Jersey’s popular governor, the wiped-out intersection was a call to action, one of many obstacles that simply had to be surmounted in order to get New Jersey working again. And thus the stage was set for the reconstruction effort now known as “The Miracle of Route 35.”

According to an article in the Asbury Park Press, the reopening of the interchange “may be the ultimate transportation miracle.” Work that was done included:

  • Removal of mountains of debris-laden sand from the highway, some of which were 10 feet deep.
  • Removal of 89 vehicles and 25 boats from the highway.
  • Removal of 27 buildings.
  • Repair of several washed-out sections of roadway, the longest being 200 feet.
  • About 8,000 dump truck loads to cart out debris from Route 35 to landfills, at a cost of about $4.5 million.
  • Reconstruction and replacement of all utilities.
  • Assessment of bridge damage, and minor repairs.

All of this work took place over less than two months—Route 35 was open to Ocean County residents in time for Christmas.

The project was followed closely in New Jersey, and Gov. Christie visited the construction site several times. It’s a rare example of an infrastructure rehabilitation project capturing the public’s interest. But even with all the attention, one story hasn’t been adequately covered: Some of the first boots to hit the ground at Mantoloking belonged to surveyors, from multiple agencies and private firms, and without their coordinated work, the Miracle on Route 35 would never have happened. And amazingly, the very day they arrived on site for initial survey work, they had access to SmartNet, the real-time kinematic (RTK) network, thanks to foresighted planning.

Overwhelming and Scary

The bridge approaching Mantoloking was fairly new and survived the storm, so surveyors were at least able to get to the site. The scene was apocalyptic; many surveyors said that the damage exceeded anything they expected to see in the United States. A force main had broken, so sewage was leaking… and that wasn’t even the worst smell; gas leaks were everywhere, and the stench (methyl mercaptan, the agent added to make odorless natural gas leaks obvious) was extremely strong. The gas company was keeping the gas main open, hoping to avoid collapse, so leaks were active and explosions were a real danger. Cars and boats were tossed around like litter, buildings were collapsed, and the sand that had washed over the intersection was covering over serious pitfalls. One surveyor abruptly realized that he was standing on sand that was on top of a pool cover, meaning that the pool cover was all that stood between him and a nasty fall (he was able to gingerly step away).

The first order of business was to find control, which should have been plentiful—a road redesign had been underway prior to the storm, and many control monuments had been set in the area. But sand was covering everything and, even worse, the swing ties provided were typically from power poles that had been snapped off by Sandy. Survey crews could find power pole bases, usually, but the pole tags were often gone. Without those, they didn’t know where to start.

Fortunately, another little known Sandy miracle was about to make itself known: a technological triumph that greatly amplified the efforts of surveyors and other first responders, and sped up recovery efforts dramatically.

The RTK Network Never Failed

Surveyors who arrived on site the second morning after Sandy’s devastation were pleasantly surprised to find that SmartNet was up and running; even cellular links were working. This made a big difference to survey work; for starters, crews were able to use state plane plan coordinates to locate existing monumentation and start digging. Most monuments were covered by three to four feet of sand.

sandy_after
Route 35 reopened to traffic after repair work. Photo from the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

SmartNet is a popular service in the New Jersey and New York region, and it provides more-or-less instant geolocation to GPS and GNSS receivers, via cellular links, without the need for base stations—most area survey firms subscribe. John White, Leica Geosystems’ territory manager in northern New Jersey, confirms that the service never failed, and explains why. “We started establishing the receiver network for SmartNet about 15 years ago,” he says, “and from the beginning we placed a priority on good locations.”

“Good locations” meant primarily government buildings; these sites were well maintained, secure, unlikely to change hands, and typically had emergency power backups. This last factor turned out to be absolutely crucial in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. “We didn’t lose a single receiver in the whole network,” White says. “The backup power kicked in, and coordinates were available.”

Locating receivers on government buildings wasn’t automatic or easy; White says that there was a lot of resistance at first. But as he steadily made his case, he says most agencies came to realize that the network served the public good and began to willingly cooperate.

White says he wasn’t especially surprised that the system kept working without interruption—“It’s a standalone system, and as long as power is available, it works”—but he was certainly pleased; a foresighted plan going back 15 years had proved itself dramatically and made a major contribution to post-Sandy recovery efforts.

Of all the stories coming out of Superstorm Sandy, this is one of the most remarkable; a sensitive and highly sophisticated system not only survived the storm of the century (one hopes); it actually never failed, and a location system that surveyors and other had come to rely on was immediately available for important—even lifesaving—work.

Getting Things Done

With control established and work underway—notwithstanding the Nov. 8 Nor’easter that set the project back to “square one”—survey crews turned their attention to topographic and stakeout surveying in order to keep reconstruction work moving as smoothly as possible. The schedule was rigorous—10 to 12 hour days, seven days a week, and most meals were from food trucks brought to the site.

On this project, it seemed like field crews led the way—meaning that conditions were changing so fast (topographic surveys, for example, had to be redone constantly as sand and debris was removed) and the pace of work was so rapid that field crews were unusually empowered to make decisions in the field. An early example was the ‘big meeting’ held early on with all the site’s surveyors. This was a meeting of all the surveyors from all the agencies trying to get work done in Ocean County. In a display of the esprit de corps and ‘can do’ attitude that prevailed in the recovery effort, the survey teams shared control schemes, recovered monuments and other information to minimize duplicated efforts and keep work moving efficiently.

This same attitude applied at the highest levels. Everyone involved says that the efforts of Gov. Christie were remarkable and inspiring. Indeed, the governor’s importance to this project can hardly be overstated; given the seaside location and the many agencies and jurisdictions affected by the reconstruction work, permitting alone could have taken 18 months. It was an impressive display of executive power put to use for the public good.

The efforts of Gov. Christie, IEW Construction Group (the state contractors) and hundreds of other stakeholders were successful; despite the intervening Nor’easter and many, many challenges a new steel-and-sand seawall was installed and the intersection was completely reconstructed and open to traffic by Tuesday, Dec. 18, well before the governor’s Christmas deadline. It was an outstanding surveying and construction achievement, and a genuine infrastructure miracle.

Angus W. Stocking, L.S. is a licensed land surveyor who has been writing fulltime on infrastructure topics since 2002. For more information about SmartNet, visit www.smartnetna.com.

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