As Earl arrives, anticipating the Big One

By · Published in 2010

The MTA’s raised ventilation grates could be put to the test tomorrow.

As Hurricane Earl passes by the New York area to the east, it’s going to rain, it’s going to be windy, and the city’s public transit grid is going to be put to the test. A little over three years ago, our subway system suffered a devastating outage amidst a torrential storm. Twenty of the 22 subway lines were with abbreviated or no service, and water rushed in through ventilation grates as the MTA’s communications network failed. How the system holds up this weekend may very well help us see how prepared the city is were a big storm to strike.

If the worst of the storm for the city is rain and some ocean swells, the transit network should be fine, but the MTA is warning customers to be prepared. Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road can help serve as evacuation routes as long as the tracks remain clear, but the MTA is at Earl’s whim. As the authority said, “The potential for service disruptions caused by flooding during periods of sustained heavy rains does exist.”

As transit workers are currently clearing drains of loose debris, the new ventilation grates that are supposed to prevent excess run-off water from flooding the subway tunnels will be put to the test. The ones above on flood-prone Queens Boulevard have won architectural praise. Now, they’ll have to garner recognition for their practicality as well.

Despite these imminent concerns of the havoc wind and rain may wreck on New York City on Friday, the issue of a big hurricane runs deeper, and a huge storm could take out the subways. New Yorkers don’t like to admit that New York City is a hurricane danger zone. Thousands of residents live close enough to the city’s shores to be in the path of potentially destructive storm surges, and while we tend to think that hurricanes happen somewhere else, a 1938 storm took out numerous houses on Long Island and resulted in the deaths of 600 New Yorkers. It very well could happen again.

Over the years, as the area’s weather patterns have changed, various analysts have commented on the city’s storm preparedness, and the general consensus is that we’re not prepared. Five years ago, Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek penned an extensive piece for the New York Press on the Big One. It is, he says, all too likely that a storm will hit New York, and as the city’s emergency personnel note, few New Yorkers will take the need to evacuate seriously. We are New Yorkers; we are impervious.

Naparstek’s piece concerns the impact hurricanes would have on the infrastructure above ground, but what of the subways? He offers a tantalizing glimpse of the way tunnels would fill with water:

For a taste of what will happen to the city’s infrastructure, we can look at the damage wrought by the great nor’easters of the early 1990s. During those storms, the L train had to be backed out as the 14th Street tunnel began filling with water, and the FDR highway was so badly inundated that 50 motorists had to be rescued by dive teams. In the event of a direct hit by a category-3 hurricane, surge maps show that the Holland and Battery Tunnels will be completely filled with sea water, with many subway and railroad tunnels severely flooded as well. The runways of LaGuardia and JFK airports will get flooded by 18.1 and 31.2 feet of water, respectively.

Erik Holm writing in The Wall Street Journal tackles the same subject and believes the subways would sustain lasting damage in the event of a storm surge or direct hurricane hit. If Lower Manhattan, a major subway hub, is flooded in a storm surge, the resultant damage could lead to a crippled subway system as the salt from the ocean water works its corrosive effects on switches and other electronic subway equipment.

Every now and then, huge storms have reminded us that water will spill over, into and around anything in its way. The subways are no exception, and although models show Earl veering away from New York on its trip up to Maine, we can’t always expect to be so lucky for much longer.

6 Responses to “As Earl arrives, anticipating the Big One”

  1. Ed says:

    Well, within memory the subways have been screwed up by normal rainfall. So a heavy storm could shut the system down. Though in terms of probability of something hitting the city, we have to worry more about Nor’eastners than from hurricanes, which have tended to be quite weak by the time they get here.

    But otherwise New Yorkers are right not to be concerned. The people who have to worry about their neighborhoods being flooded by hurricanes are people living in low lying coastal areas, in places that generally were built up in the twentieth century, usually after World War II, often quite recently. There are in fact neighborhoods within the city that fall in this category, but probably about 90% of New Yorkers live on what is relatively high ground. You just won’t be able to get to work.

    It also helps that unlike in other places, most New Yorkers are not dependent on driving to do something like go to the store. In most of these scenarios, you will be able to make it down the block.

    • MichaelB says:

      I disagree. In a storm as big as the one described, we would likely see power outages lasting several days. A large proportion of New Yorkers live in buildings that have a water tank on top, and a pump. If that goes off, water is a problem. In addition, damage wouldn’t stop at the city line. Highways and rail lines covering a large area would be damaged as well. The store may be right down the block, but the shelves clear off pretty quick when the delivery trucks stop.

    • Gerald says:

      That’s the official hurricane flood map.

      As you can see, its much, much worse than what you made it seem like. This hits some densely populated areas in all 5 boroughs.

    • Nathanael says:

      Lower Manhattan needs its subways flood-proofed.

      This probably means eliminating the direct stairways from street level into the subway, which allow water to flow down like rivers.

      Certain other areas are going to end up needing seawalls, like the tracks around Penn Station.

      • Matthias says:

        What is an alternative to stairways into the subway? Any sort of entrance will let in water, unless passengers are required to climb over a retaining wall before descending.


  1. […] rain on the city to drown the transit system, but such a circumstance may very well be inevitable, writes Second Avenue Sagas. It’s just natural: “Every now and then, huge storms have reminded us that […]

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