How America's most vibrant city could be utterly destroyed by the next big storm
As Hurricane Sandy plowed up the eastern seaboard the other night, with 90 mile-per-hour winds and storm surges that threatened to overwhelm New York, the most unsettling sound outside my Brooklyn window was silence. Normally, trains trundle faithfully along the B and Q subway lines behind my apartment building all day and night; they rattle the windows and echo loudly through the courtyard below. But when the Metropolitan Transit Authority shut down the subway system on Sunday, there was only quiet, and sometimes a great gust of wind.
The hush gave me time to consider some of the more discomfiting things I know, like the fact that long before Sandy unleashed its fury on the city, and even before Tropical Storm Irene did 14 months ago, there were people warning of this exact scenario, and they were only sometimes heard.
Rewind, if you will, to a chilly night last March, when a crew of transit employees worked under cover of darkness on the steps of the Chambers Street subway station in Lower Manhattan. The men moved quickly, darting through the night as they prepared for a mock storm to hit New York. One by one, they stretched tall wooden planks around the mouth of the station, fastening them to the cast iron frame with plastic straps. After maneuvering the final panel into place, they screwed two-by-fours on at the corners, draped the wall in sheets of protective plastic, and piled sandbags in rows at its base. When the last bag had been heaved into place, the crew chief checked his watch. All told, it had taken them two hours to build the crude dam.
After the drill, the MTA said that if New York City were hit with a storm stronger than Irene, they would likely need more men, plywood, and sandbags to keep the subway system dry. Even if they erected barriers around the perimeter of every flood-prone station in the city, wooden boards alone would not seal the entrances entirely. Perhaps they would slow the flow of incoming water, but they couldn't prevent a powerful storm surge from inundating the system. If the next storm did not peter out as it tracked north, like Irene did, the nation's largest transit system could be swamped by floodwater one station at time.
"Is the MTA prepared for a Category 1 hurricane?" John O'Grady, who led the authority's recent efforts to prepare for flooding, asked rhetorically last spring. "No, we can't be. The city itself isn't prepared."
From his spacious corner office at transit headquarters downtown, O'Grady has an unobstructed view of New York's harbor and the path that water might take to the Chambers Street subway station. An engineer by trade, he has worked for the MTA for 24 years and now manages the infrastructure and facilities arm of capital construction.
At first glance, O'Grady, a tall, resolute Irishman, appears much like any other desk-bound civil servant: rumpled suit, furrowed brow, and a few extra pounds around the middle. But the yellow neoprene boots tucked in the corner of his office tell another story. Over the past quarter century, he has spent hours in the bowels of the subway system, knee-high in what he politely refers to as "muck." Somewhere along the way, he developed an unexpected affection for the subways and now stays up nights worrying about how to keep them dry.
"The city is very vulnerable," O'Grady said. The transportation system is very vulnerable. It is in danger of being inundated by storms to the point where it becomes the ultimate sewer."
In the aftermath of Irene -- the menacing hurricane-turned-tropical-storm ironically named for the Greek goddess of peace -- city officials estimated that if the waters of New York Harbor had surged about a foot higher, they would have overwhelmed the bulwark at Battery Park and sent water cascading into Lower Manhattan. On Monday, the combined astronomical tide and storm surge did just that, fulfilling the predictions of a computer-modeling program the city uses called Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes, or SLOSH for short. True to expectations, gale force winds thrust nearly 14 feet of water over the seawalls in Manhattan, and swamped coastal neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, too.
Slowly, water wandered out from the southern tip of Battery Park, spreading like tentacles through the Financial District and flooding streets to the east and west. Meanwhile, large swathes of Manhattan lost power, darkening the city's skyline below 39th Street. In Chelsea, a building's front façade crumbled and collapsed, its innards exposed to the storm, while a loose crane swung from atop a tall skyscraper in Midtown. Water overwhelmed two commuter tunnels connecting Manhattan to the outer boroughs -- the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens Midtown -- and flooded PATH stations linking New York to New Jersey.
"New York is riding a rail system that its grandparents put together. There's been no major reinvestment in running it."
Of course, the greatest danger of all was that water would rush down the stairwells of low-lying subway stations and pour through sidewalk ventilation grates, flooding the subway system and crippling the city's principal form of public transportation. If that happened, the authority had warned, all of the tunnels beneath the East River could be submerged within 40 minutes, and subway lines from Brooklyn to 14th Street might fill with water shortly after that.
In fact, all seven tunnels running under the East River took in water that night. Although transit officials haven't estimated the time it may take to fully recover, their own models suggest that it could take weeks to restore the flooded system to complete functionality. Millions of moving parts in each train and tunnel may be corroded by saltwater; each will have to be taken apart, cleaned, dried, reassembled and tested before the system can hope to run again.
Because city officials are not in the business of advertising their concerns, most New Yorkers don't realize that some have been imagining this scenario for a while. The culprit, some say, could be climate change. To be sure, New York faces unprecedented dangers in a warming world. Although the waters along the east coast of the United States have been inching up since the end of the last ice age, the rate of rise has accelerated in the last 150 years. This is particularly true in places like New York, where land is also subsiding as the Earth's crust readjusts. If polar ice sheets continue to melt at their current rate, the water around Manhattan and Long Island could rise by five inches within the next eight years. By mid-century, local sea level could be up by a foot, and up by two feet by 2080.
Along with rising sea levels, increased temperatures will bring more precipitation and stronger storms. As a result, what was once considered a 100-year-flood (with a one percent chance of occurring in a given year) is likely to take place much more often in the future.
In recent years, agencies like the MTA have been scrambling to protect their assets as fast as they can. But to brace the transit system for floods to come -- in the next year, decade, or century -- is no small feat. Seventy percent of the city's subway tracks are located at or below street level. Already, the authority pumps roughly 13 million gallons of water from its tunnels each day, and that's on a dry day. When it rains, the water flowing into the system multiplies quickly.
Today, subway cars in New York carry passengers on over 5 million rides each day. With the tunnels flooded, more than half the city's population could find itself without a way to get to work, bringing the city's $4 billion a day economy to a grinding halt. If storms like Sandy continue to inundate New York, each time stranding residents and costing huge sums in productivity and repairs, they could drain the city we know and leave us with one we can only imagine.
New York City is nothing if not full of boastful agencies: its firemen are the bravest, its policemen the finest, its corrections officers the boldest. But the MTA's O'Grady is more humble. "It used to be that nothing made me happier than a good storm on a summer's night," he said in a moment of emotional candor. "Not anymore."
Until last year, the idea that a storm could shut down the nation's largest transit system was difficult to imagine. The vast web of tracks beneath our feet and the hard rock cocoon that surrounds it hardly seem likely to surrender to water someday. But when the subway system churned to life over a century ago, New York was a very different city. Stagecoaches and horse-drawn carriages were the primary mode of transportation, average annual temperatures were six degrees cooler, and local sea levels measured 12 inches lower than today.
What's more, as Alan Weisman points out in his book, The World Without Us, the city's surface area was far more permeable back then. When it rained, water was soaked up by tree roots and grasses, digested by underground aquifers, or simply evaporated. Surface runoff flowed into ponds and marshes, or ran into one of the myriad small waterways that crisscrossed the city.
Today, those waterways are buried beneath a paved street grid, said Ernest Tollerson, the MTA's director of environmental sustainability. Miles of concrete have replaced the dirt, so when rain falls it flows directly into the sewers. But even New York's elaborate sewer system can't always handle all the runoff. When it rains, the sewer pipes are easily overwhelmed. Like a giant drain, they jam with leaves and trash, and force surplus water down the street, through the nearest subway grate, and into pump rooms near the tracks.
During a storm, those pump rooms can fill quickly, as rain collects on top of the natural groundwater, said the MTA. And depending on the city's geology, namely the configuration of its bedrock, there can be a lot of groundwater. Since New Yorkers no longer draw water from local wells, the city's water table is higher today than it once was. In some places, the inflow of groundwater is hundreds of gallons per minute.
The transit authority realized the magnitude of the problem it faced back in 2007, when a late summer thunderstorm dropped nearly three inches of rain in the streets in just two hours. By midday, the storm had overwhelmed the subway's pump and drainage capacity, submerging switches, signals and the third rail under several feet of water. One by one, subway lines went down across the city and hundreds of thousands of straphangers were stranded during their morning commute to work.
Days later, O'Grady was put in charge of a massive effort to flood proof the subway system. Today, there are raised stair pads and elevated sidewalk grates sprinkled throughout the city, the latter of which the MTA calls "street furniture," since many double as benches or bicycle racks. Although the steel grilles make for awkward seating, said O'Grady, it's a major improvement to the previous anti-flooding measure, nicknamed Operation Submarine, in which grates were covered with blue tarps and held in place by buckets of cement.
"What we've done thus far is not a cure-all," O'Grady said. "It's just been retrofits, stopgap measures. The idea of protecting the subway system from a severe hurricane, the scale of that is unbelievable." In a follow-up conversation in the presence of the MTA's press officer, O'Grady spoke more guardedly, but he still expressed serious concerns. "What do you do in the future for global warming, " he asked. "We can protect our system to a certain extent but after that there's an obligation on the part of the city to act. "
Next time you're there, peer over the sides of the platform on the B/Q line at the Atlantic Avenue Terminal in Brooklyn. The muddy water that lies pooled in the shallow trough between the rail lines has seeped in through small cracks and fissures in the walls of the tunnel. Then consider a cross-section map of New York's streets. Because the subways lie below the city's sewers, explained O'Grady, pulling all that water up to street level each day can be a Herculean task.
During a storm, hundreds of underground pumps struggle to keep pace with the flow of incoming water. Sometimes, transit crews wearing hip-waders for fly-fishing must help dry the tracks themselves; they navigate flooded tunnels on rolling platforms called "track dollies," and pump water from the rails as they go. Of course, the pumps are electric; take away power and water levels in the tunnels can rise in a hurry.
As water reaches the third rail, the one that stands about a foot off the ground and supplies power to trains, it is charged with 600 volts of electricity, and can short-circuit signals, switches and stop motors, making it unsafe for conductors to drive their trains down the tracks. In was fear of this very scenario that prompted MTA officials to shutter the subway system prior to Irene last summer, said Joe Leader, the authority's vice president and chief maintenance officer. "Water is bad," explained Leader. "But salt water is even more of a conductor. That's why we powered down."
Powering down the subway system is not as easy as it sounds. During Irene, Leader directed operations from his post at MTA's Rail Control Center, called the "War Room." His generals, chiefs and crew spread out across the city, removing valuable parts from the tracks and carrying them to high ground. They raised elevators to street level, barricaded station entrances, and sealed hundreds of vulnerable sidewalk grates. Turning to the subway cars, they drove each one to inland storage yards and abandoned tunnels beneath the city. They steered diesel-powered pump trains into flood-prone tunnels and ushered emergency generators into place. Then, for the first time in the system's 100-year history, some 6,000 subway cars, 700 miles of track, and 460 stations fell silent.
Removing a framed map of the subway system from his wall last spring, Leader pointed to the tangle of colorful lines that run outward like arteries from the heart of Manhattan. If New York were hit with a storm stronger than Irene, he said, "you could literally lose every under river tube here. You could lose the Lex, the Clark Street, Rutgers, you would probably lose the Cranberry, and the 14th Street too. You could get water all the way up to the ceiling."
"I'm an engineer," said Leader, a track guy. "And I worry more about the weather than I do about putting down rails."
According to Projjal Dutta, the authority's director of sustainability initiatives, O'Grady and Leader have good reason to worry. As of last spring, there was little dedicated funding left to fortify the system against threats like sea level rise and stronger storms. "All of this costs a lot of money. The MTA barely has money to do what it's doing. It runs under all manner of economic shortfalls. Like any chain, it's only as strong as its weakest link. By and large, it's not a very happy situation."