The Lessons from New York’s Flooded Subways

After Hurricane Sandy, New York commuters will be hoofing it for a while. Other cities around the world should be paying attention.

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Mike Segar /Reuters

Vice President and Chief Maintenance Officer of New York City Transit and Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Joseph Leader inspects a flooded stairwell which leads down to a platform beneath street level at the flooded South Ferry-Whitehall Subway Terminal in lower Manhattan, which serves the 1, R and N subway lines in Manhattan, following Hurricane Sandy October 31, 2012.

So here’s the bad news for the 5.3 million New York City commuters who depend on the subways to get from place to place: The entire system — all 660 mi. (1,050 km) and 468 stations of it — is shut down, much of it inundated with corrosive salt water. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) freely admits it has never faced anything remotely like the devastation from Hurricane Sandy, and has absolutely no idea when the system will be up and running. “We’ll know it after it’s done,” says MTA spokesman Charles Seaton.

But the good news is — well, never mind. There isn’t any. Really, it’s that bad, and if there’s no telling when things will be repaired, there’s even less way of knowing what the eventual price tag will be. Yes, there are lessons to be learned from the current emergency for both New York itself and urban planners everywhere; the question is whether they’ll be heeded.

New York’s woes are partly a function of the age of the subway system. It’s 108 years old, its tunnels and stations are situated adjacent to or underneath rivers and harbors, and water seepage is unavoidable. Street-level grates that provide light and air to the tunnels and stations act as natural drains during even ordinary rain, making a mess of platforms and often halting service. “We have three pump trains, 300 pump rooms and dozens of portable pumps around the system,” says Seaton. “Even on a day when there’s no rain, we pump out 13 million gallons of water.”

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Hurricane Sandy, of course, put a lot more strain on the system than an ordinary rainless day. Storm surges in lower Manhattan rose to 14 ft. (4.2 m), blowing the doors off the previous 10 ft. (3 m) record, set by Hurricane Donna in 1960. Much of Manhattan below 40th St. is without power, and even if the juice were still flowing, the subway system would not dare to go online. An unknown number of stations are flooded to the ceiling and all seven under-river tubes linking the boroughs are also inundated — hardly the environment in which you’d want to light up a system whose fabled third rail provides 625 volts of power to the trains. And it’s not just any water that’s swamping the system, it’s salt water. Even after it all evaporates, there’s still residue that would cause short circuits if power were switched on. That means a long, painstaking clean-up.

“Every single piece of equipment — signals, contacts, everything — has to be disassembled, cleaned and dried,” says Seaton. “Then it can be reinstalled.” The subway cars themselves, at least, are stored at high ground.

It would help, surely, if the fifth largest subway system in the world — and by far the largest in the U.S. — weren’t operating under ever-worsening budget constraints. The system took a $1.1 billion budget cut in 2009 and responded by shutting many stations after hours, slashing the number of staffed fare booths and postponing or canceling planned repairs and maintenance. That just leads to more breakdowns, those too often weather-related. For all the pumps at the system’s disposal, they still can’t handle a rainfall of more than 1.75 in. (4.5 cm) per hour without causing service disruptions. Low-tech fixes — including a $130 million program to equip subway grates with a lip that prevents standing rainwater on streets and sidewalks from flowing in — can help. But if the scenes of maintenance workers racing to cover grates with large pieces of plywood in anticipation of Sandy are any indication, it’s only been a partial solution.

(More: Are We Making Hurricanes Worse?)

In theory, the subway could grow by shrinking. Its crazy-quilt design is partly a function of its uncoordinated origins, a modern amalgamation of three private lines — the Interborough Rapid Transit Line (IRT), the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT). A smaller, better maintained system would withstand hurricane-scale events more easily, but that would be impossible unless mass-transit alternatives such as modern light rail or express bus routes were made available to the communities that would be left without subway service. In some ways, New York is experimenting with contraction, at least in terms of its schedules, shutting down some lines at night in order to fast-track repairs. In essence, the 24-hr,-a-day, 7-day-a-wk. conceit of the subways is sacrificed for the simple expedient of keeping the trains rolling.

No subway system will ever be truly immune to weather events. This is especially so in great cities like New York — whose very greatness in part depends on their proximity to rivers, harbors and other bodies of water. “The part of the subway system that was flooded is down by the battery,” or Manhattan’s low-lying areas, says Seaton. “You’d have to seal the entire system off to keep it dry, which is not possible.”

But spending money on infrastructure construction and maintenance is eminently possible, and indeed essential — even if it’s decried as pork and stimulus spending by its opponents. That kind of preventive investment always seems too expensive at first, but only until you’re suddenly faced with the infinitely higher repair bills New York is dealing with today. And as oceans continue to warm and sea levels continue to rise as a result of climate change, the problem is only getting worse. In the past 20 years, Hurricanes Andrew, Floyd, Katrina, Rita, Dean, Irene, Isaac and others have tried to remind us of that simple truth. Now Hurricane Sandy is adding her voice. One of these days, we might actually listen.

(More: Katrina: An American Tragedy)