By Ryan McNeill
(Reuters) - A senior state legislator said New Jersey Transit appears to have made a "deliberate effort to obfuscate the facts" about its preparation for Superstorm Sandy, which caused $100 million in damage to critical rail equipment.
General Assembly Deputy Speaker John S. Wisniewski also questioned NJ Transit's ability to protect its rolling stock following a Reuters report that the agency had misused storm surge modeling software and failed to seek adequate guidance on its use from weather experts ahead of the storm.
Sandy's flood waters damaged one-third of NJ Transit's locomotives and a quarter of its passenger cars left in two low-lying rail yards in the New Jersey communities of Hoboken and Kearny. The $100 million in damage was a crippling blow to a critical link for New Jersey commuters into New York City.
A spokesman for Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, did not respond to phone calls or emails from Reuters this week. NJ Transit has either declined to comment or refused to answer specific questions in recent days about new evidence that the agency made preventable errors in the leadup to the storm.
NJ Transit has maintained that it made its decisions based on the "best available" forecasts and historical experience. But National Weather Service forecasters have disputed those interpretations and several press reports have called the explanation into question.
Wisniewski is chairman of the General Assembly's Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee, which has oversight of NJ Transit and held hearings on the issue in December.
Speaking to Reuters this week, he said NJ Transit was refusing to take responsibility for its mistakes.
"What's infuriating is we gave New Jersey Transit a chance to come explain what happened and we were given a story that proved not to be accurate," Wisniewski, a Democrat from the center-state town of Sayreville, said in telephone interview.
"They ought to stand up and say, 'We messed this up.' Instead, they are looking to justify and explain away the decisions made. And I find that unacceptable."
"What rankles me is what seems to be a deliberate effort to obfuscate the facts," he said.
NJ Transit faced questions from federal and state lawmakers after Reuters published a November investigation that showed it did not heed specific warnings from maps produced by the National Hurricane Center's probabilistic storm surge models, known as p-surge.
When NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein appeared in December before a U.S. Senate committee, he said forecasts showed "there was a likelihood in the 80 to 90 percent range that no flooding would happen."
The new Reuters report last week detailed how NJ Transit incorrectly used National Weather Service software, known as SLOSH Display. The software is intended for emergency managers to model a hypothetical hurricane and identify areas vulnerable to storm surge.
Documents Reuters received from NJ Transit in response to a formal records request show the agency modeled a storm going in the wrong direction at the wrong speed and produced storm surge estimates far below what forecasters were predicting.
NJ Transit spokesman John Durso Jr. said last week that the agency has "very serious, substantive disputes" with Reuters' newest findings, but he has declined to detail those disputes or answer specific questions.
National Weather Service meteorologists have publicly criticized NJ Transit for failing to seek its help on interpreting forecasts and understanding how to use its software.
When Reuters contacted the governor's office to discuss criticisms of the agency, a staff member provided comments previously made by the governor in a press conference when Christie said NJ Transit leaders "made the best judgment that they could under the circumstances."
"This is a guy (with) decades of experience in government with extraordinary competence who made the best decision he could make at the time," Christie said about Weinstein, executive director of NJ Transit. "Sometimes people make wrong decisions. It happens. It's not a hanging offense."
(Editing By Janet Roberts and Claudia Parsons)