When you think of severe storms and transportation, you think of Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012, and its brutal impact on New York and New Jersey. Not only did 43 people in New York City die in the storm (mostly by drowning) but Sandy crippled the nation’s biggest mass transit system.
The city has had nearly two years to make improvements. So, with 2014′s first tropical storm, Arthur, preparing to move up the East Coast, it seems like a good time to ask whether New York’s subway system is flood-proof enough to withstand another Sandy-magnitude storm?
No, said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency responsible for the subways and the commuter trains that run to the Long Island, Westchester County and Connecticut suburbs.
“This is a process that is going to take several years,” Ortiz said. “It’s something that can’t be done overnight.”
(Arthur shows no signs of taking on Sandy-like magnitude, but the National Weather Service says it will likely be at hurricane strength Thursday as it approaches the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On its current forecast path it is likely to be off the New York coast by Friday night.)
Sandy’s flooding put all six subway tunnels connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan out of service, as well as a tunnel that carries subway trains between Queens and Manhattan. The loss of subway service stranded 5.4 million normal weekday riders, according to a report issued last year by the city.
Suburban trains to Long Island and New Jersey and Amtrak service were also stopped by flooding.
The South Ferry subway station in Lower Manhattan, used by more than 29,000 riders daily, was underwater for a week and was severely damaged – and Sandy struck only three years after the completion of a $500 million project to modernize that station. It is still not back in service.
The MTA is focusing some of its efforts on seven subway stations in lower Manhattan for repair and storm resistance work to gird for future storms.
Ortiz said the MTA’s main goal with those subway stations is to prevent “incursion” at more than 600 entry points where floodwaters might come in.
In lower Manhattan “we’ve come a long way in identifying where our vulnerabilities are,” he said. Solutions “are being implemented as rapidly as possible using methods which are achievable with our current operating forces.”
Among the solutions: deployable subway stair and vent covers which workers could put in place as a Sandy-type storm is approaching the city.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D- N.Y., whose district includes much of lower Manhattan, said, “We have made some important improvements to New York’s infrastructure, but much more needs to be done. In addition to preparing for the next Superstorm Sandy, we must work to comprehensively address threats posed by climate change and rising sea levels.”
Recovering from a natural disaster and trying to prepare for the next one is expensive.
So far, the Federal Transit Administration has made $5.7 billion available to help transit systems in the states hit by Sandy.
The MTA has gotten $3.8 billion, including $898 million for resiliency. Most of that money goes to the city’s subway system.
The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act which Congress passed in January of 2013 provided nearly $11 billion for FTA to help states and cities which were hit by Sandy to rebuild and strengthen their transportation systems. Sequestration later trimmed that amount to $10.4 billion.
The Container covers the transportation community in Washington.
Tom Curry (@TCurry_Himself) writes for The Container. He has been a national affairs reporter and editor for nearly two decades, having covered elections, Supreme Court nominations, fiscal policy and the health care debate.
Joe Warminsky is managing editor of CQ Weekly magazine and editor of The Container.