It's common for construction contractors to point to one of their past projects and say with justifiable pride, “I made that.” The roads, bridges and buildings they built stand as both their legacy and critical infrastructure that helps keep society functioning.
But few contractors will ever be able to put a finger on a map and say, “I helped save that community.” Which is a good thing, because “saving” requires that the community first face a grave crisis — like Superstorm Sandy.
Sandy was a so-called “perfect storm,” the clashing and eventual merger of two large storms. In this case, a huge storm front swept across the interior of the country to collide with a hurricane that rolled up the East Coast of the United States. This weather phenomenon was so freakish that a National Weather Service forecaster initially referred to it as “Frankenstorm,” but the nickname was quickly dropped for fear of trivializing the danger.
Superstorm Sandy turned out to be historically brutal. It was the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, with a diameter of more than 1,000 mi. In anticipation of landfall, much of coastal New Jersey shut down, with virtually all schools and businesses closing. Evacuations were recommended in some areas, ordered in others. Highway tolls were suspended to expedite the escape of residents to safer ground. Amtrak stopped all services in the region, and more than 16,500 flights were canceled nationwide.
29, Sandy came ashore near Brigantine, N.J., with hurricane-force winds of 80 mph and a storm surge that flooded many coastal areas. The wind and water destroyed thousands of homes, left millions without electricity and killed 72 people in eight states. When it was over, Sandy ranked as the deadliest hurricane to hit the mainland United States since Katrina in 2005, and the deadliest to hit the East Coast since Agnes in 1972. Damage estimates in the United States reached more than $71.4 billion.
New Jersey was particularly hard hit. Forty people died, neighborhoods lay in ruins, many roads were impassable and more than 2 million customers lost electrical power. But even as emergency rescue and medical personnel responded, authorities were calling in qualified crews to pick up the pieces and begin the long climb back to normalcy.
“We started the day after the storm,” said Brian Delpome, vice president of field operations of Ferreira Construction Co., one of the region's leading contractors. “We've worked with the state before, so they know us and our capabilities. They called us in to open state highways.”
Ferreira Construction was sent to the communities of Ortley Beach and Seaside Heights, both barrier island communities in Ocean County, and Belmar, a shore town a few mi. north. All three are usually within easy driving distance of Brigantine, where Sandy came ashore, and took a full hit from the storm.
“It was an unbelievable scene,” Delpome said. “In Seaside Heights and Ortley Beach, there were houses down all along the highway, which in a lot of places was covered in to four to five feet of sand and debris from buildings. And there were roughly 150 washouts on the roads, typically 20-by-20 feet across and about eight feet deep.”
The situation was different, though just as severe, in Belmar. “The ocean had come right into the town and flooded it, so we had to pump all that the water out,” Delpome remembers. “We spent the first week pumping the water back to the ocean, and then we had to remove the debris of the boardwalk that had been washed into town, along with sand removal.”
When called upon, Ferreira immediately stopped work on all of its existing projects to focus on the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy.
But getting started in the chaos was difficult. “It was the most hectic thing I've ever been involved with,” Delpome remembers. “The hardest part was to get organized and stay organized. We'd go to the scene and assess it to see what we needed. Someone had to be on top of it all and stay one step ahead to manage all of the manpower and equipment so we could be productive and efficient. We had to be, because a lot of people were counting on us.”
He notes, “Right after the storm, we had more than 500 people working on cleanup, with more than 100 pieces of equipment in Seaside and more than 200 pieces of equipment total.”
To maximize its efforts to the fullest, Ferreira turned to its long-standing partner, Cat equipment dealer Foley Inc., for additional machines in a hurry. “We needed to rent a lot of equipment — loaders, backhoes, rubber-tired grapples — so we could get the work done.
“The strong relationship we have with the people at Foley really helped a lot. They were there with us days, nights, weekends, whenever, to get us the equipment we needed.”
In Ortley and Seaside, Ferreira crews worked 24/7 for the first six weeks after the storm, but fatigue was not the worst of their problems.
“The night work was difficult because there was no power on the island, so there was no light and safety was a big issue,” Delpome said. “But Foley really came through for us. They provided a couple of dozen light towers so we could keep working through a very tough situation.”
Equipped with the resources it needed, Ferreira methodically cleared about 20 miles of state highway and adjacent roads and repaired the washouts. At the same time, company crews worked at 10 different PSEG (Public Service Enterprise Group Inc.) power plants, pumping out water and cleaning debris to help in the restoration of electrical service throughout the region.
Even with the roads useable again, Ferreira faced two steep tasks. There were 150,000 cu. yds. (114,683 cu m) of sand to be screened. “Broken pieces of houses and the boardwalk were mixed into the sand that had been washed onto the roads. All of that had to be screened before we could place it back on the beach,” according to Delpome.
And there was all of the garbage created by the historic storm — more than 250,000 tons (226,796 t) of debris that needed to be hauled out of Seaside and Ortley. Foley was once again able to assist Ferreira with the work.
“One of the best pieces that Foley rented to us is the Exodus, a long-reach grapple that we used to load out the 250,000 tons of garbage,” Delpome said. “The debris was piled so high that the Exodus was the only machine that could reach it all. We nicknamed it The Claw because it looked like a big claw grabbing big loads from that huge pile.”
Ferreira recently completed its storm-related work with some final cleanup at the PSGE plants, and life and work are returning to normal. But Delpome and the Ferreira crews will always remember Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath.
“When the residents were let back onto the barrier island, we worked around them as they looked around and took in all the devastation of their homes and their neighborhoods. That was heartbreaking,” Delpome said. “But now that we've been able to help them get their lives back on track, we can feel good about doing something to help so many people.”
This story was reprinted with permission from PayDirt Magazine, Fall 2013 issue.