NYC's flooded South Ferry Station, after Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012.
If a major hurricane hit New York City tomorrow, damage to the subway system would likely be worse than it was in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
How is that possible?
That storm did $5 billion of damage to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) systems, much of it caused by the flooding of subway tunnels.
Power outages in the wake of the storm slowed the rate at which the MTA could pump the tunnels clear, and millions of gallons of salt water took a heavy toll on tunnels filled with metal and electrical equipment.
And while the tunnels are dry for the moment, the heavy post-Sandy workload — pumping tens of millions of gallons of water over consecutive days — degraded the pumps.
The MTA is now working to find ways to flood-proof subway tunnels, but no solutions are in place yet. The city's ability to clear water out of under-river tunnels varies between 47% and 100% of what it was before the storm, depending on tunnel and time, MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg said.
That means New York is no more capable of keeping damaging water out of its tunnels than it was before Sandy, and it is significantly less capable of getting water out.
The MTA's Preparation Plans
The Authority did an excellent job getting the city's subways back in service after Sandy hit. But it has made little progress so far in making the system more resilient.
The subway system "is far from being prepared to deflect or absorb another storm of that size," said Rich Barone, Director of Transportation Programs at the Regional Planning Association, an urban research and advocacy organization.
In the lead-up to Sandy, the MTA blocked subway openings with plywood and sandbags, which "actually performed fairly well," MTA spokesperson Lisberg said. But they were not good enough: A floating bundle of wood knocked down the plywood barrier blocking the Montague tube, which carries the R train under the East River.
The tube flooded, and now the MTA plans to close it for 14 months to repair the damage done by 27 million gallons of salt water. It is also closing the Greenpoint Tube, which carries the G train between Brooklyn and Queens, for 12 consecutive weekends starting in July.
On May 16, six months after Sandy hit, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a series of MTA initiatives to permanently repair damage from the storm. (Much of the work done in the aftermath of the storm was meant to be a stop-gap solution.)
"It will take years to design and implement permanent recovery measures," the MTA said at the time. The agency announced the creation of the Sandy Recovery and Resiliency Division, which issued 16 task orders to six architectural and engineering design firms, who are expected to present preliminary plans in July.
Department of Homeland Security
A prototype plug created by the Resilient Tunnel Project.
Asked about MTA plans to flood-proof the subway tunnels, Lisberg said the agency was still seeking proposals. One option he mentioned was the Resilient Tunnel Project, from the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. The idea is straightforward: Use enormous, inflatable balloons to plug subway tunnels and keep them from flooding.
The project has been underway for more than five years, and the plugs could be ready for use in 18-24 months, its leader, Dr. John Fortune, said in an interview.
Another potential solution mentioned by Lisberg comes from RSA Protective Technologies: removable flood control panels specially designed to block off subway openings. RSA President Rick Adler would not comment on when the panels could be put into place in NYC, citing an MTA request not to discuss their relationship.
In May, MTA interim executive director Thomas Prendergast said above ground panels were unlikely to be in place by the start of this hurricane season, which started June 1, the New York Times reported.
The MTA has made one part of the subway system more resilient: A two-mile wall of steel now stands between the water of Jamaica Bay and the above-ground tracks of the A train leading to the Rockaways, the Queens peninsula severely damaged by Sandy.
But as the city faces another hurricane season, the MTA is left to fight flooding with plywood, sandbags, and pumps that are not up to par.
Why Is This Taking So Long?
There are 540 vulnerable openings in just six subway stations in Lower Manhattan. To prevent tunnels and stations from flooding again, each needs to be watertight. The best-known solutions — the plug and the RSA panels — are not ready yet, and "some of the best technologies and best practices we don't even have yet," Lisberg said.
So why the delay? Why did Cuomo and the MTA wait six months to issue task orders to architecture and engineering firms?
The RPA's Barone suggested the delay is linked to funding from the federal government: "They were probably waiting to do some of this stuff until they were sure they had the funds to do it." The MTA has done some work, he said, assuming it would be paid back, but those projects have focused on restoring service to previous levels, not building up resilience.
Lisberg denied the connection, saying the MTA was simply being methodical.
"There was no funding-related delay — we took the time to understand the problem and figure out the right way to solve it."
What Was Done Before Sandy?
The MTA was working to flood-proof the subway system before Sandy, but was caught short by the size and strength of the superstorm.
In 2008, the Authority published a report on the challenges climate change posed to its public transit systems. "As you can see," Lisberg said in an email, "the experts assumed we had until the 2020s to begin physical adaptations to our network. We now know the time for action needs to be sooner."
An MTA worker cleans the Montague Tube under the East River after it was pumped clean of salt water.
From 2007 to 2009, the MTA spent $30 million on flood mitigation projects, including raising entrances at 30 stations, installing valves to keep water discharged from stations from re-entering, improving sewer capacity, and modernizing pumps.
Those surely helped, but were not nearly enough to deflect the brunt of a major storm.
Barone suggested the larger problem is a lack of money. The MTA is still working to recover from "decades and decades of disinvestment," he said, and the funds it did have were used to improve the quality of the trains, stations, and infrastructure.
The sudden appearance of a major hurricane, a decade before it was expected to hit, has brought about a shift in priorities, though, Barone said.
Of course, it's unlikely another storm the size of Sandy will strike the city this year. But the changing climate means that New York "will be much more vulnerable to flooding in the decades ahead," NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a speech this week. "We have to prepare for what the scientists say is a likely scenario."
The MTA is preparing for the future, but it's not ready yet. “It will take years to design and implement permanent recovery measures,” Lisberg cautioned.
Barone gave the Authority credit for working hard to get ready for another major storm.
"They're going to do it as fast as they possibly can, but it's a big ship. It doesn't turn on a dime."
Update: After this article was published, the MTA sent this response:
The MTA is in no way less prepared for a hurricane now, after successfully managing a much-heralded response to the worst transportation emergency to ever strike New York, and after everyone at the MTA has absorbed the lessons of the storm. While some components of the MTA network require further work, the response to the next storm will be stronger, will have extra attention and resources devoted to keeping water out of the system, and will be performed by a workforce seasoned by experience.
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