On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy barreled through the NYC metropolitan area like a freight train. Storm surges broke records, especially in lower Manhattan, which saw significant flooding. Cars could be seen floating down Wall Street. The subway system took a hard hit from flooding tunnels, suffering $5 billion worth of damages, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity that didn’t take place in the aftermath of the storm. But for a system that dates back over one hundred years, the damage could have been worse.
Even while the forecasters were still working out the details of the storm, the M.T.A. went to immediate work blocking subway openings with plywood and sandbags, mostly in the low-lying areas. “Not long after Sandy was categorized a tropical depression off the coast of Venezuela on Friday, Oct. 19, the M.T.A. had begun gathering cots and bedding, food and water, for track workers and hydraulics teams and even the train crews that would shut the system down and start it back up.”
For the most part, these primitive, low-tech methods for stopping the surge of floodwater succeeded. In some places, they failed. In the case of the R train, the plywood barrier blocking one entrance was knocked down by storm debris. The tunnel flooded with 27 gallons of salt water, causing the tube to be closed for repairs for fourteen months.
Even on a dry day, pumps run underground. The system “takes in 13 million gallons of water that pour into it from underground streams and other sources” each day. But experts say another superstorm would be even more devastating than Sandy. “The heavy post-Sandy workload — pumping tens of millions of gallons of water over consecutive days — degraded the pumps.” So, not only do we not have a better method for keeping the water from coming in, but our means of getting it out have been crippled.
One option under consideration to prevent subway flooding comes from the Homeland Security Department: enormous, inflatable balloons to plug subway tunnels and keep them from flooding. These gigantic capsules, however, are still at least two years away from becoming available to transit agencies.
The Routes Not Taken: A Trip THrough New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System by Joseph B. Raskin
NYC Subway Isn’t Ready for Another Hurricane
Could NYC Subways Survive Another Hurricane?
Hurricane Sandy: Inflatable Plugs Might Have Minimized NYC Subway Flooding