PA Storm Prep Means Knowing Which Way the Wind Blows

By Amanda Kwan, Media Relations Staff

The New York-New Jersey region is no stranger to severe weather. Residents know summers mean pop-up thunderstorms, tropical storms, and hurricanes.

But in early August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration threw the region a curve: an updated forecast of an “extremely active” Atlantic hurricane season, with 19 to 25 expected storms harboring winds of 39 mph or more. As many as 11 could develop into full-blown hurricanes.

Credit: NOAA

With memories of extensive damage and lingering power outages from Tropical Storm Isaias still fresh, planning for the next big weather event is a part of everyday operations at the Port Authority’s six river crossings. At the first hint of bad weather in the forecast, discussions begin on storm preparations: Are the drains cleared? Are all construction and maintenance equipment secured? Is there a staffing need for additional emergency personnel?

Each PA crossing has unique concerns based on geographic location, physical structure, and any ongoing projects at each facility.

The George Washington Bridge, for example, has two wide levels of traffic to consider, while the Goethals and Bayonne bridges and the Outerbridge Crossing have a single level of narrower proportions. The PA uses roadway weather information systems that provide continuous data on atmospheric, pavement, and/or water level conditions – invaluable in real-time operations management during storms.

The George Washington Bridge, in calmer times

The bridges share similar protocols for weather-related restrictions when wind could be a major factor, guided by forecasts on sustained wind speeds and expected gusts. These two metrics result in different approaches to preparation and response, likened to the difference between being stuck in a wind tunnel for a prolonged period compared to a momentary but strong breeze.

During inclement weather and high winds, the Port Authority could restrict or outright ban tandem trucks and tractor-trailers, motorcycles, and bicycles on its bridges. Speed limits are often sharply reduced. Extremely poor visibility and hurricane-force winds might prompt closures that can take 45 to 90 minutes to be fully implemented.

 “If we get close to these forecasts, we won’t hesitate to put a restriction in place even if we’re an hour or more from that weather reaching our facilities,” said Ken Sagrestano, the general manager of the George Washington Bridge. “We start having those discussions sometimes days in advance with our regional partners because of our potential impact on the broader traffic network connected to us.”

Since the Port Authority’s vehicular crossings are links in a much larger transportation network, PA facility restrictions have significant impact on regional traffic for millions of motorists. As a member of TRANSCOM, a coalition of 16 transportation and public safety agencies across the region, the agency provides updates and coordinates operational responses with its transportation partners. 

The PA uses social media, electronic alerts and digital signage on roadways to provide motorists with updated information, which is useful when decisions must be made quickly with sudden weather shifts. Port Authority police provide enforcement support, and additional bridge personnel may be called in to help monitor road conditions.

“Our officers will not hesitate to pull over a vehicle that shouldn’t be out at our facilities when weather restrictions have been implemented,” said Edward T. Cetnar, superintendent of the Port Authority Police Department. “If we see someone where they shouldn’t be, it’s getting pulled over and turned back around as quickly and safely as possible so that the driver doesn’t endanger themselves or others.”

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