Home View from Underground Preparing – and holding our breaths – before the next big storm

Preparing – and holding our breaths – before the next big storm

by Benjamin Kabak
Removable floodwall panels could be put in place to seal off subway tunnels in the event of another big storm.

Removable floodwall panels could be put in place to seal off subway tunnels in the event of another big storm.

As New York City works to recover from the lingering impact of Sandy, the headlining news from the MTA on Thursday was largely positive. A train service to the Rockaways will return on May 30, nearly a month ahead of schedule, and the subway system will again be complete. But it’s a superficial completeness as the damage from the storm and its surge will make its presence felt for months and years to come.

In conjunction with the good news about the A train, the MTA yesterday delivered a press briefing with the bad news. I didn’t have a chance to attend the briefing, but Matt Flegenheimer of The Times did. He shares the news:

Inside a crew room at the new South Ferry subway station, once flooded wall to wall with the waters of Hurricane Sandy, transit officials on Thursday offered a sobering progress report on a system that continues to feel the storm’s effects. Emergency repairs have proliferated. Exposure to saltwater accelerated the corrosion for many metallic parts, and reduced the useful life of equipment like cloth cable sheathings. Last month, a pump discharge line in the Canarsie tube, where the L train operates, ruptured under normal loads — residual evidence of the storm’s excessive stress on the system, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

And if a hurricane were to approach the city in the immediate term, the agency’s best option for fortifying stations would most likely be the same: sandbags, plywood, and the hope that water would not find a way through. “It’s sunny outside. it’s warm,” said Thomas F. Prendergast, the authority’s interim executive director and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s nominee to be chairman. “We’re about a month away from the start of another hurricane season.”

The authority said it was devising plans to protect itself against storms as powerful as a Category 2 hurricane, adding that officials would study whether it was possible to protect against Category 3 or Category 4 storms…Mr. Prendergast suggested that aboveground floodwall panels, to be placed over station stairwells or sidewalk vents, were seen as a leading option to protect the system. But he cautioned that these additions were unlikely to arrive for the start of the next hurricane season, leaving the authority with little choice but to rely on sandbags and plywood. “By and large, it worked very effectively,” he said of the low-tech remedies. “But we can do better.”

Even as Prendergast tries to put a positive spin on things, the fact remains that key points in the system — underwater tunnels between the boroughs — remain vulnerable to flooding and seriously damaged. The pump in the Canarsie Tube burst last month, and I’ve heard rumors of long-term saltwater damage in both the Montague St. Tunnel and the Greenpoint Tube that could require extensive repairs and service outages down the road.

In the materials accompanying the briefing, the MTA announced a variety of efforts. In addition to the new Sandy Recovery and Resiliency Division I discussed yesterday, plans include tunnel repair work, pump room and pump capacity augmentation; and flood mitigation and prevention efforts focused around vulnerable stations in Lower Manhattan and car yards in low-lying areas. Still, the challenges are extreme, and the MTA has to prepare for the worst. As the materials detail, for instance, the Montague St. Tunnel would fill with water in 30 minutes if flood levels reached just over five feet, and a Category 2 hurricane could lead to a storm surge of up to 16 feet.

Over the next six months, as hurricane season unfolds, the city’s transit network will remain vulnerable. It’s still recovering from last year’s storm and can ill afford another direct hit. Until these measures are in place, we’ll be relying on sandbags, plywood and some dumb luck while we hold our breaths and hope for the best.

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Nyland8 May 17, 2013 - 7:10 am

Funny how whoever Photo-Shopped the flood panels into the image above never bothered to darken the bright lights shining up from the entrance. The first thing that strikes you when you see it is, if so much light can get out, then water will certainly get in.

Hopefully not an omen.

While the frequency and severity of recent storms is daunting, it is certainly reassuring that our ability to predict them seems to have improved by leaps and bounds. The computer algorithms on Sandy had substantial agreement before the eye crossed Cuba – a full week in advance of its landfall. When it finally struck, it was impacting the Jersey shore within 1 hour, and within 50 miles, of where it was predicted 6 days before! May we be so lucky next time.

lawhawk May 17, 2013 - 9:08 am

The point that we’re about to enter hurricane season without any kind of upgraded defense plan in place to harden the low-lying areas of the system can’t be stressed enough.

The MTA will be continuing to rely on measures that were insufficient under Sandy conditions, and aren’t expected to roll out improved measures anytime soon. They’re still testing the tunnel plugs, and they’re suggesting usage of removable panels at entrances and grates – though no contracts have been let.

This is something that must be put to Gov. Cuomo since he’s the one who is ultimately responsible for the MTA (he’ll more than gladly take the credit where it’s due, but shirks the responsibility for making sure that the system gets properly funded and that its capital plan can get realized). The state’s budget must address this – as should the NYC budget to make sure that the lifeblood of the city isn’t severed by the next severe storm to hit the region.

tacony palmyra May 17, 2013 - 9:39 am

The subway’s been (mostly) operating fine for 100 years and now we’re preparing to shut it down every year because “100-year storms” may be basically a yearly event. This should be a sobering reminder of how much of a big deal climate change is and how much more federal support we need to adapt to it, if acknowledging its existence weren’t still a political nonstarter among a lot of right-wing kooks.

But I still think the MTA needs to do a better job of examining best practices around the world when it comes to dealing with what we consider to be “extreme” weather events. There are functional transit systems in climates that are rainer, stormier, hotter, colder, more humid, more snowy, more prone to flooding, etc etc. How do they do it? The fact that the MTA just installed countdown timers that apparently can’t handle a typical NYC summer heatwave should be an outrage. I’m sure there must be countdown timers operating in cities where it’s frequently 100 degrees. Why didn’t we order the ones they use? Nobody thought of that?

When Cuomo tells people to stay off the roads during a bad winter storm, we realize people in Canada are laughing at us, right? I wonder if the Dutch are laughing at our feeble attempts to keep flooding at bay.

oinonio May 17, 2013 - 10:40 am

It’d be wise if NYC could borrow some of the Dutch experts to help us shore up Nieuw Amsterdam…

al May 17, 2013 - 12:31 pm

2 points:
1) Those 100 yr storms are educated guesses based on available evidence. You can have 2 of them back to back and not another for a century. OTOH, we’ve seemed to ignore the most severe storm. The 1821 hurricane produced a 13ft storm surge at LOW TIDE. Add the 1ft sea level rise in the 192yrs since and 3 ft for high tide, and that is a 17ft surge. The 13.9 ft surge from Sandy was possible, not theoretical.

2) We need to move away from this hard and fast linkage of max wind speed and storm impact. It led to the public underestimating the impact of Hurricane Ike and Sandy. Ike came ashore a Cat2 with 950mbar core pressure. People paid attention to the Cat2 status and not the core pressure. The 2 data points indicated an enormous high speed wind field that generated 70ft seas and a 20+ft storm surge. We didn’t learn that lesson in 2008. Sandy was Ike take 2. It was a Cat1 storm with a 945mbar core pressure when it rolled in over Atlantic City. People though its only a Cat1 storm, and totally ignored the pressure that indicated a colossal wind field. We all know the result.

pea-jay May 17, 2013 - 10:38 am

Why should the MTA be forced to protect every single entrance and opening. Flood waters will affect others as well. We should be pooling these resources to build a flood wall along the low lying areas of lower manhattan. Or better yet flood gates at the Narrows, and other areas where the harbor meets the ocean. It’s totally doable too. We won’t get anywhere if each entity tries to protect its own assets and misses the big picture

Justin Samuels May 17, 2013 - 9:55 pm

There will not be a flood gate build to protect NYC. Water during a hurricane has to go somewhere, and it would find ways around the flood gates . New Orleans has levees to protect it from flooding, and they failed during Katrina.

There is just a certain amount of risk in having things and living in coastal areas. The South gets hit with hurricanes rather frequently. They just rebuild after every hurricane, which New York will be forced to do as well.

Bloomberg had an interesting point. It didn’t take the MTA long to get most of the system running. He has said federal funds would best be spent on building new subways lines. Waterproofing stations will not work as there is ventilation along the streets and how would they seal those grates? The system is insanely leaking, water comes in big time from just regular rain storms.

pea-jay May 18, 2013 - 7:40 am

Flood walls work for the Dutch. It isn’t impossible or undoable. Even if we don’t keep the water out in the Atlantic we can harden the defenses around lower manhattan.

Eric May 19, 2013 - 2:52 am

And the British.

Larry Littlefield May 17, 2013 - 1:12 pm

I was told years ago by a meteorologist and transit fan that the odds of a Sandy type event hitting NYC were very low. The hurricane had to go backwards vs. the Jet Stream to hit the city.

It could happen again. And a previous northeaster also flooded the tunnels.

But while we prepare for that possibility, remember which part of metro NY is in the bulls eye for a major hurricane hit. Long Island. I haven’t heard too much about what is being thought about for preparations there.

Bolwerk May 17, 2013 - 1:27 pm

Yeah, the odds in a given year are low. The odds of it happening again sometime in our lifetimes are probably pretty high.

Larry Littlefield May 17, 2013 - 3:36 pm

What would be worse is if global warming and sea level rise meant modest storms would be enough to cause massive flooding.

Justin Samuels May 17, 2013 - 9:57 pm

It will happen again, but look at the Southern states. Hurricanes hit them rather frequently. You just have to rebuild things after the hurricane and move on.

D in Bushwick May 17, 2013 - 2:45 pm

What about the 1000s of feet of sidewalk grates in the flood-prone areas?

Benjamin Kabak May 17, 2013 - 2:49 pm

Those would be covered with similar equipment as well.

pea-jay May 17, 2013 - 9:39 pm

Such a hassle. Build a flood wall and keep the waters out of lower manhattan in the first place.

Eric May 19, 2013 - 2:53 am

A flood wall would cost billions, and grate covers would cost millions.

Ben Willis May 18, 2013 - 5:18 pm

I was completing my Masters at Tulane in N.Orleans when Katrina came through. Like a fool, I rode out this storm with a few friends at their families condo in the French Quarter. The engineering that went into the flood control systems in the Netherlands is state of the art. And, the Dutch are very, very serious about maintaining these systems. The British also have some excellent flood control systems in place as well. Anyway, it seems logical to me that sealing the subway system from water from an eminent flood seems like a good idea to me.


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