New York, NY: South Ferry Subway Station in Manhattan. Left, Oct. 17, 2013; Right, Nov. 2, 2012. (Credit: Natalie Keyssar/Weather.com)
On the night of Oct. 29, 2012, Kevin Ortiz sat in the Metropolitan Transit Authority press office fielding reports from around New York City. The news was grim. Despite all the precautions the MTA had taken in preparation for a hurricane named Sandy -- shutting down subway lines in advance of strong winds, moving trains away from flood zones, closing tunnels -- the system was being inundated.
"This was unprecedented in terms of the amount of damage that we were seeing throughout the system," Ortiz, an MTA spokesperson, recalled a year after Sandy swamped New York City.
"We were ready for the storm," Ortiz said. "But we were told it was a Category 1 storm and we ended up getting Category 2 surge that topped 14 feet. In terms of what we'd done in safeguarding the station, it was completely overwhelmed by the amount of surge."
Water is a pushy element. Fast-moving and forceful, it's hard to stop water from going where it wants to go, and even harder to remove it once it's in place. The MTA has spent more than a century devising methods to keep water out of the places it would naturally flow to, relying on hundreds of pumps to keep the subway tunnels dry. On every sunny day of the year, those pumps remove 13 million gallons of water. On rainy days, the pumps have to work significantly harder. They can handle about 1.5 inches of rain per hour, but a relatively strong thunderstorm can produce about 3 inches of rain in an hour.
When the high tide, the full moon, and a hurricane coincided during Superstorm Sandy, the surge reached 14 feet. Hundreds of millions of gallons flooded the system almost instantaneously. Though the MTA worked tirelessly in preparation for the storm, it seems there's little the transportation authority could have done in advance would have prevented the catastrophic damage. And once the storm hit, the only immediate option was to put the water back where it came from.
"THE DEVASTATING EFFECTS OF WATER"
Though he'd been monitoring Superstorm Sandy for days, Alvin Lee hadn't been expecting a call to head to New York. As the Regional Business Director in the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, he was accustomed to dealing with the havoc caused by hurricanes -- he was the commander in New Orleans for three years after Hurricane Katrina. But this time around, a specially trained group from Rock Island, Illinois had already left for New York City to help with the unwatering. Still, if he was needed, he would go.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is part of the national response framework for emergencies. Its personnel take orders from FEMA, and on this particular mission, Lee was told to assist the MTA and other local agencies with the unwatering of New York City. It wasn't going to be an easy task, considering some 600 million gallons of storm water had flooded the nation's busiest underground transportation system. The subway system alone shuttles 5.5 million people around the city daily. All told, the flooding was spread across seven East River subway tubes, two Long Island Railroad tubes between Manhattan and Queens, two vehicular tunnels, one subway bridge and six bus depots.
"I had seen the level of damage before in Katrina, but it was different because New York is a massive city," Lee said.
Making the task even more challenging is the fact that much of New York City's infrastructure is underground, meaning all the water that easily flooded the system with the help of gravity would have to be mechanically forced back up over 150 feet. This led to dangerous conditions for those working in the tunnels, since there was no ventilation and the tunnels could be filled with high amounts of carbon monoxide after the water was removed, Lee said.
The USACE called in a number of other groups to assist with the unwatering process, including private groups such as Xylem, a company that makes industrial strength water pumps. Xylem moved over 500 pumps from the West Coast and the Midwest to the New York-New Jersey region in preparation for the storm. With pumps ranging from the size of a Ford Focus to enormous 20,000-pound monsters as large as tow trucks, Xylem's diesel-driven pumps replaced other electric pumps that had failed in industrial areas and private business around the region.
"It was probably about a month's worth of 18 to 20 hour days," said Mike Delzingaro, the Vice President and Director of Sales at Xylem. "You don't want to tell a person no in times of need."
The massive unwatering efforts proved just how willing people were to come in to assist the beleaguered city. Subway service opened two days after the storm and was running at 80 percent within five days. But the amount of work that remained was almost beyond belief. It will take until 2016 just to get the subway running at the same level as before Hurricane Sandy, and many more years to implement a resiliency plan.
"I walked in one of the subway tunnels that was 100 feet from our command center after we pumped it out," Lee said. "You just see all this debris and all the things that got pushed through the tunnels, there were even cars. It just reinforces the devastating effects of water in that situation, in a storm of that magnitude."
A CITY OF ISLANDS
New York City's uneasy relationship with the waterfront is partially due to history, partially due to an ambivalence about what the space should be used for, and partially due to the residents' inability to escape from the water. Four of the cities five boroughs are either part of a larger island or are islands, and these landmasses have around 578 miles of waterfront. That's not counting the dozens of forgotten islands that belong to the metropolitan area, from the well known (Governor's Island, Ellis Island and Liberty Island) to the obscure (Barren Island, Swinburne Island and U Thant Island). According to one book, there are 42 islands in the city when the tide is low.
Historically, New Yorkers have dealt with the waterfront in one of two ways: harnessing it for industry or reconstructing it as a leisure space. The first option prevailed during most of New York's early history. When the islands were still a colony of the British crown, individuals purchased waterfront property and used it almost entirely for the maritime industry, filling the shoreline with piers and warehouses and effectively sealing off the average New York citizen from the water, wrote Rutherford Platt in Environment Magazine.
It wasn't until hundreds of years later, beginning with Robert Moses's Riverside Park project along the Hudson River, that the waterfront was seen as something that could benefit city dwellers in a more intangible way. Today there are manicured, sculpted slivers of recreation space, from Battery Park to the Hudson River Park on Manhattan's western shore. This confusion about the purpose of the waterfront is evident in a question posed by Elizabeth Albert, artist and professor at St. John's University: "Do we desire, loathe, devour, dread the waterfront?"
With rising sea levels and the likely increase in the frequency of severe weather events, the choices made about how to use the waterfront and whether to control it or allow it to engulf the city have never been more important. This lesson was drilled home by Superstorm Sandy, and now, with years of work remaining before the MTA is fully back on its feet and prepared to take on another storm of that magnitude, there are plenty of questions about the future of New York City's infrastructure. Suggestions range from using permeable landscaping around the waterfront that will keep the floodwaters from having such a terrible impact to plugging up the subway tunnels with huge, inflatable corks.
"The main goal is to reduce the inflow of the system," said MTA spokesperson Ortiz. "We'll be piloting various alternative strategies. New York is certainly unique, although I know the system in Amsterdam has taken steps to mitigate flooding."
For now, the MTA has to keep one eye on the present and the other on the future, continuing the reconstruction of the subway system while planning for a safer future. While commuters might argue the current kinks in the system should take priority, it's only a matter of time before another storm comes along to test the city's resiliency and remind all of its citizens how powerful water can be.1 of 47 Oct. 29, 2013 - This is an example of the damage sustained by the South Ferry station on the New York City Subway's 1 Line. The station was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. (MTA New York City Transit/David Henly)