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The Destruction of Hurricane Sandy by City Tech Blogger Cheng Wang

Climate change has affected a lot of countries, it causes an unusual rise in the sea level and global temperature, resulting in catastrophic storms. The New York City subway system was faced with challenges during hurricane Sandy. The MTA is the most important transportation in NYC, with at least 70% of NYC residents traveling by subway every day. If the MTA cannot deal with the problems caused by Sandy, the it will lose a lot.

The most problematic climate change issue for the subway system deals with the rising sea levels and coastal storm surges. The normal rising rate for the sea level in New York City has been 0.96 feet per century, but as the temperature rises it warms the ocean. This causes water to expand and the sea level to rise at a faster rate. In addition to this ocean water expansion, the warmer temperatures will cause land ice to melt, increasing the ocean’s water volume. Flooding of the underground subways can indefinitely halt transit services, cause power outages, corrode infrastructure, clog sewer systems and spread unsanitary debris. Such an event would cause an unprecedented economic toll, and the energy required to fix these problems would just add on to the CO2 emissions. (7)

The MTA was working to flood-proof the subway system before Sandy but was caught short by the size and strength of the superstorm (8). Because of improvements made after the 2007 flood and Hurricane Irene, the MTA was far better prepared for the larger-scaled hurricane. On October 26th—three days before the storm hit—the MTA published a press release alerting the public about a possible transit shutdown. Additional measures in the plan included:

  • Moving buses and trains to higher ground;
  • Covering subway entrances and ventilation grates with sandbags and tarps;
  • Deploying crews to clear debris from all pumps and drains in subways, tunnels, and bridges;
  • Activating and staffing the Incident Command Center to coordinate personnel and manage the response;
  • Assuring all pump trains, portable pumps and emergency response vehicles are in working condition and ready to be deployed after the storm passes. (3)

The MTA was effective in assessing the damage to infrastructure and instituting a cleanup plan. Inspectors examined every stretch of impacted rail and electrical infrastructure to ensure their functionality. One of the most challenging aspects of the storm repair is the 108-year old subway system, which has unique and outdated parts that require extensive time and costs to replace. (3) The subway system was severely affected by the flooding of its tunnels. MTA employees used their three pump trains to remove water from the tunnels as soon as possible. Workers put in double shifts on consecutive days to get the pumping done. The subway does have its own pump system for normal drainage, but it cannot function without power and therefore could not work during the hurricane. (3)

When Sandy slammed into New York, it brought a massive storm surge that flooded the coast. The MTA said the Canarsie Tunnel was one of nine underwater tunnels that flooded during the storm, all of which needed extensive repairs. The Canarsie Tunnel was flooded with 7 million gallons of salt water. (6)

A 7,100-foot-long section of both Canarsie tubes suffered damage to tracks, signals, switches, power cables, signal cables, communication cables, lighting, cable ducts and bench walls, the MTA said. To protect the structural integrity of the entire tunnel, the MTA said bench walls throughout that section need to be rehabilitated. (6)

Work on other MTA tunnels has already been accomplished through night and weekend closures, while the Montague Tunnel under the East River, which serves the R line, was shut down for over a year and the G train’s tunnel was closed for two months. (6)

The Canarsie Tunnel was flooded with seven million gallons of salt water, damaging all electrical and communication equipment, including circuit breakers, lighting and power cables, fire protection equipment, emergency alarms, phone systems and fiber optic cables.  While the Canarsie Tube is safe, work must get done to avoid future, unplanned service disruptions. While the MTA has been making temporary repairs and conducting frequent inspections, the condition of the tunnel components and systems require their rehabilitation or replacement as soon as possible.

The Rockaways was highly affected by Hurricane Sandy and a 1,500 feet of above-ground train tracks were wiped out. To prevent that from happening again, the MTA has built a three-mile sea wall between the train tracks and the water to protect it from future storms similar or worse than Hurricane Sandy. The MTA has built the wall in the Rockaways, added new pumps, tunnels that are slowly being waterproofed, and they plan to replace the plywood and sandbags with actual metal and plastic. (4)

Install backup power for pump systems: When power outages knock out subway pumps, subway flooding is exacerbated, and the potential for infrastructure damage is much greater. Backup power is an essential addition to the subway pump system so that tunnels may be cleared of water more quickly. (3)

Install flood gates and raised entrances at flood-prone stations: Several major transit systems, including those in Bangkok, Thailand and London, feature elevated subway entrances and built-in floodgates to allow the system to continue operations even during floods. These infrastructure upgrades, if implemented in New York, would significantly lessen the effects of flooding and damage to equipment during future storms. (3)

Consider installing subway “plugs:” Currently under development by the Department of Homeland Security, the “plug”—which looks and works like a big balloon—helps prevent water from entering subway tunnels and can inflate in just a few minutes. These plugs could help prevent significant damage due to tunnel flooding. (3)

After the super storm Sandy, the MTA is doing multiple things to protect the system. For example, water tight doors have been installed on all circuit breakers, signal rooms located in the Montague R tubes are being installed at street entrances, and critical rooms at the South Ferry Station. Customized floodgates and barriers have also been designed and will be mobilized so they can be placed over station stairs, sidewalk grates, and various equipment hatches and manholes. There are also about 50 street level points within the flood zone along the Canarsie Tunnel.  We are installing mechanical closure devices to prevent water from entering the tunnel through ventilation gratings. Additional resiliency efforts include the installation of watertight hatches, watertight manhole covers, deployable ventilation covers, and watertight doors. Pump controls will be relocated to higher levels, and the North 7th fan plant street-level opening will be hardened to prevent water from entering the tunnel. (5)


Reference List

  • Davies, Alex. “ONE YEAR LATER: Here’s How New York City’s Subways Have Improved Since Hurricane Sandy.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
  • Kaufman, Sarah M., Carson Qing, Nolan Levenson, and Melinda Hanson. Transportation during and after Hurricane Sandy. New York, NY: Rudin Center for Transportation, NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, 2012. Web.
  • “Transportation During and After Hurricane Sandy.” Transportation During and After Hurricane Sandy.                                       N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
  •  Davies, Alex. “ONE YEAR LATER: Here’s How New York City’s Subways Have Improved Since Hurricane Sandy.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
  • “Canarsie Tunnel Reconstruction.” Mta.info | Superstorm Sandy: One Year Later. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
  • Cook, Lauren. “The L Train Shutdown Explained.” Am New York. N.p., 09 Mar. 2017. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.


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