A year ago, New York City had no idea what was coming its way. As officials were scrambling and MTA crews hard at work reinforcing the system in advance of a storm called Sandy, We were waiting to hear if the subways would shut down, but the decision had seemingly already been made. By 7 p.m. on the 28th, no trains were running, and New Yorkers huddled in their homes to see just what Sandy would bring.
For the subway riders of New York, Sandy’s impact was immediate. We saw dramatic images of water-logged tunnels and video of the New York Harbor rushing into the stations in Lower Manhattan. It took the better part of a week for subway service to return to something approximating normalcy as the MTA had to combat flood waters and a major Con Ed power failure, and today, the R train is out of service for another year as the corrosive salt water essentially destroyed the infrastructure.
We still don’t know what the future holds for the other subway tubes that were flooded by Sandy. The Montague St. Tunnel took the worst of it, but the L train didn’t escape unscathed. In total nine subway tunnels flooded to some degree, and while the impact of saltwater depends upon the time of exposure, any contact between electrical equipment and the ocean will reduce the useful life of those components.
In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine section, as part of the paper’s look back at Sandy, Robert Sullivan went inside the subway system to tell the story of what happened before, during and immediate after Sandy. The piece is titled “Could New York City Subways Survive Another Hurricane?” and while Sullivan doesn’t offer up a clear-cut answer, it seems that the system is better equipped to withstand a storm even as resiliency efforts will continue for a few years.
Overall, I’d urge you to read through Sullivan’s piece. It talks of an agency dedicated to improving its response to storms while recognizing that it can’t seal off access points and call it a day. That — the knowledge and human creativity that came out of Sandy — is what will protect the subways when there’s another storm heading our way. There are some interesting stories and key takeaways. So let’s jump in.
On the interconnectedness of the subway system and why protecting 148th St. mattered:
[The plywood wall] endured, with about three inches to spare. The triumph might seem like a small one in the face of Sandy’s destruction, but it wasn’t. Here’s what it prevented from happening: After flooding the No. 3 line tracks to the south, and destroying millions of dollars worth of equipment, the Harlem River would have continued south, following Lenox Avenue to about 142nd Street, a junction where the 3 line joins the 2 line, which runs to and from the Bronx. By consulting both the Slosh maps and its own topographical maps, the transit authority determined the water would have flowed toward the Bronx, via what’s called the Harlem River-Lenox tunnel, and then east to 149th Street on the Grand Concourse. Then, in the worst case, the water would have moved through a connecting track, and like liquid moving through a Krazy Straw, the Harlem River would have flowed south through another under-river crossing, the Harlem River-Jerome tunnel, to 125th Street in Manhattan. From there, it would have flooded the downhill Lexington Avenue line — which happens to be the busiest one in the city, carrying more people every day, 1.8 million of them, than any other American subway system — to about 103rd Street, where the tracks rise, up toward Carnegie Hill.
On the speed and power of the floodwaters:
Inside the control center, the TV told them the surge had arrived. “All of a sudden the phones start lighting up, and you don’t have enough hands, you don’t have enough ears,” Mazzella says. “It’s nuts, the 6-Wire” — the internal communications line, which connects to the Police and Fire Departments — “starts going off, and you’re hearing that there are explosions down at the Con Ed plant, that there’s water cascading into the system here. . . .” The boards began to come back to life, the sensors in the tunnels registering the water as moving trains. New York City Transit had estimated that flooding would close a few of the 14 tunnels that go under the city’s waterways (called “tubes”), but at this time it looked as if nine of them would be lost.
On how pumps inside the Joralemon St. tunnel outperformed those near East Broadway:
It was the sound of old-school subway technology, a pneumatic pump powered by pressurized air from pipes that run all the way back up to 149th Street, where a compressed-air station was unaffected by Con Edison’s power outage downtown. There are dozens of air-compressor pumps all along the Lexington Avenue line; each one of them removes about 200 gallons of water per minute and is about 60 years old, having replaced early-20th-century models. Jezycki refers to these pumps as his Studebakers. They were struggling, but succeeding enough to keep the tunnel clear, draining the water that chased out Joe Leader before flowing downhill toward the East River tube. Aboveground, the plywood had kept the water out of the air vents.
There’s a lot more to take in — including one person questioning how the MTA spent $500 million on a station at South Ferry that didn’t have some flood protections — but I think these are the key points. It’s exceedingly difficult to protect the subways because of the redundancies and connections and because of Manhattan’s geography. It sounds as though only a few inches separated the city from a true public transit disaster that would have wiped out even larger chunks of the subway system.
Another Sandy will head our way at some point. It won’t be tomorrow but it may be next year, in five years or in 15 years. We won’t know until then if we’ve learned our lessons, and the subways will be forever vulnerable simple because they are the lowest point. For now, though, they’re back, and that, by itself, was a very impressive feat.