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“Are we having fun yet?” Joseph Lhota, head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, wrote on Twitter Oct. 28, two hours after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the largest U.S. transit system would shutter as Hurricane Sandy approached.
There’s no fun now for Lhota as he tries to breathe life back into a system washed out by an almost 14-foot (4.3 meter) tidal surge that crashed into New York City when Sandy came ashore Oct. 29.
Helping the city of 8 million cope with catastrophe has been the hallmark of Lhota’s career, said Anthony Carbonetti, chief of staff to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani while Lhota served as deputy mayor for operations.
“What you’re seeing is something for which Joe has prepared for his entire career,” Carbonetti said today in a telephone interview. “He learned the Giuliani mantra of prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and he guided the city’s response through blizzards, hurricanes, many disasters, and of course then came 9/11.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Lhota was working in his downtown office when the first of two planes struck the World Trade Center. In the days that followed, the then-deputy helped coordinate the city’s response and recovery, setting up an emergency operations center on a pier where agencies relocated. He also managed volunteer efforts and interagency communications after the Twin Towers came down in the worst attack on U.S. territory since Pearl Harbor.
“What I learned from 9/11 that is really important, first and foremost, you have to motivate all the workers and understand that they’ve left their families to help clean up a pretty awful situation,” Lhota said in an interview today outside the Hugh L. Carey Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in downtown Manhattan. “Every time you have an emergency management situation, it’s all about teamwork.”
He’s also on the front line now, after the largest storm ever to form over the Atlantic Ocean struck, killing at least 75 people in the U.S., flooding the New York subway system and knocking out power to as many as 8.5 million homes and businesses along the East Coast.
Lhota was on the scene as water rose over barriers in the highest tide in city history and watched as it poured into subway entrances, paralyzing New York. Lhota, 58, has since been a steady voice at press conferences where he has detailed efforts to revive the system. The subway reopened its doors at 6 a.m. today with 14 of 23 lines running, and bus service connecting the dots between.
Not that he’s always calm. The MTA chairman is also known for a hot temper. At a Sept. 27 meeting he criticized board member Charles Moerdler during a dispute over the number of meetings the authority should hold.
“Be a man,” Lhota said twice.
“Oh, I’d be happy to,” Moerdler said. “In your words, I will bring it on.”
“Let’s go,” Lhota said.
The two didn’t duel, yet it’s that kind of intensity that helps Lhota get the job done, said Randy Levine, president of the New York Yankees baseball team and an attorney who was Giuliani’s deputy mayor for economic development.
“Once he makes his mind up about something, he becomes singular and focused,” Levine said. “He’s direct, he’s smart, he doesn’t brook nonsense, and he’s a very good team player.”
He’s also hands on and detailed, traits that were apparent when he helped the Giuliani administration manage everything from rats to snowstorms, Carbonetti said. Lhota was known as the “rat czar” after taking on the housing authority’s battle with the vermin.
“As the rat czar, he could tell you how fast they multiply, what their lifespan is, when they become of age to breed,” Carbonetti said. “Once he gets started he will tell you everything. It’s a little disgusting.”
During a major snowstorm on New Year’s Eve 2000, Giuliani sent Lhota to Queens and Carbonetti to Brooklyn to provide on- the-scene updates on plowing efforts, Carbonetti said. Lhota has been just as hands on as he has gone from flooded tunnel to flooded tunnel to inspect pumping and circuits.
“When I see him going every place, I know what he’s doing,” Carbonetti said. “He’s checking everything himself. He trusts his own eyes and the people who are always there because when it goes up three layers, things begin to get rosier.”
Lhota said in emergencies such as 9/11 or the storm recovery, he makes to-do lists, and everything on those lists has to get done.
“Every day, you have to inch forward, inch by inch, row by row, in my case track by track,” Lhota said. “You’ve got to incrementally move forward as best you can.”
Cuomo has praised Lhota’s post-Sandy efforts.
“The MTA and their team is an example of people who have been working around the clock to get this city running once again,” Cuomo said at a press conference in Manhattan yesterday.
Cuomo appointed Lhota in October 2011, replacing Jay Walder, who had run the agency since 2009 and left to become the chief executive officer of MTR Corp. (66), Hong Kong’s urban rail operator.
The MTA operates the city’s subways, buses and commuter railroads, including Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad, and carries 8.5 million riders a day.
Limited, free service on 14 of 23 subway lines resumed today, along with travel on buses and Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road commuter trains. Still, subways can’t run between 34th Street in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn until power is restored and tunnels are cleared of water.
John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, says the credit for getting the system back on its feet should go to the 38,000 MTA subway and bus workers he represents.
“Joe Lhota would agree with me that he didn’t put the system back together,” Samuelsen said. “Lhota could be the greatest manager in the world, but he’s worthless without this unionized work force.”
Workers are feverishly draining three underwater tunnels, inspecting hundreds of miles of railroad track, and getting the signal system working again, he said. In many cases, workers are braving flood waters.
For commuters, like Cynthia Lewis of Elmont, New York, Lhota is the most important person in the city right now.
“I need to get paid!” said Lewis, who works in the New York court system, as she rode the F train from 179th Street.
“I think it’s a pretty good deal, that they got it up and running.”
Lewis, who normally works in Lower Manhattan and takes the E train, was redeployed to the Queens County Courthouse on Union Turnpike. Her house has been without power since 3 p.m. Oct. 29.
While she was willing to credit the MTA with doing its best, it’s not enough to take the sting off a planned fare increase that may bring the base subway fare to $2.50 from $2.25 and make monthly unlimited passes as much as 20 percent more expensive. Fares are going up, her salary isn’t and service is still poor, Lewis said.
“There’s always a lot of issues with the MTA,” Lewis said. “Ask anyone on the street.”
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