The Article That Predicted the New York Subway Storm-Surge Problem

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Sandy may flood New York's transportation system. Meet the Columbia risk researcher who told us this could happen last month.

If you would like to see the definition of prescience, take a look at this New York Times article from September by Mireya Navarro. She quotes Columbia's Klaus Jacob essentially predicting the trouble that New York now faces, namely, that a big storm surge could paralyze its transportation system.

Klaus H. Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University's Earth Institute, said the storm surge from Irene came, on average, just one foot short of paralyzing transportation into and out of Manhattan.

If the surge had been just that much higher, subway tunnels would have flooded, segments of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and roads along the Hudson River would have turned into rivers, and sections of the commuter rail system would have been impassable or bereft of power, he said.

The most vulnerable systems, like the subway tunnels under the Harlem and East Rivers, would have been unusable for nearly a month, or longer, at an economic loss of about $55 billion, said Dr. Jacob, an adviser to the city on climate change and an author of the 2011 state study that laid out the flooding prospects.

"We've been extremely lucky," he said. "I'm disappointed that the political process hasn't recognized that we're playing Russian roulette."

Today, Andrew Cuomo announced the MTA subway, buses, and trains will shut down this evening and may remain out-of-service until Wednesday.


Update: New York Magazine's Daily Intel reached out to Jacob for his take on the current situation. It appears the big question is whether Sandy arrives at the full-moon high tide on Monday night or not. If it does, things could get ugly. 

We may not know which of those two scenarios we face, however, until just hours before the storm hits. "Sandy is a very moody storm," Dr. Jacob added. "It changes its mind as it goes along, so it will take probably until tomorrow or early afternoon before we know exactly what the exact timing will be."

Regardless, it seems like we're in for some subway flooding. According to Dr. Jacob, the most vulnerable are subway stations are those in downtown Manhattan, particularly along Wall Street -- newswire photographs showed transit workers boarding up subway grates near the Staten Island Ferry on Friday -- as well as on the Upper East Side near the Harlem River, and near the Newton Creek boundary between Brooklyn and Queens.

Besides the subway, car tunnels, coastal streets, and even the airports should expect flooding from a Category 1 hurricane, according to one city report. Both LaGuardia and JFK airports, where serious delays and travel disruptions are already expected, may experience as much as three feet of flooding.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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