Weather Underground

(Flickr/Marco Derksen)

In New York City, subway service started back up yesterday after Hurricane Sandy flooded seven East River subway tunnels and sent the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) scrambling to inspect hundreds of miles of track along the 108-year-old system. But many of the flooded tunnels, which run from downtown Brooklyn through lower Manhattan, remain out of commission, and the power outage in the Financial District has stopped service in the borough’s lower half, even across the city’s bridges. On Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg said it would be unlikely that service was fully restored by the weekend. 

Regardless of whether Sandy can be linked directly to climate change, it was the type of extreme weather event that will only become more frequent as the planet warms. Old or new, few electricity grids, public transit systems, bridges, roads, or communications networks were built to withstand these challenges. But despite the flooding that occurred during Sandy, this isn’t necessarily one of those stories in which officials saw warning signs and did nothing. Since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, disaster-preparedness experts in New York and elsewhere have begun to embrace the idea of “resilience”—building infrastructure that can weather such storms and setting in place support systems that allow public utilities to recover quickly from damage. Although New York’s public transit system may not be up and running at full capacity quite yet, the city’s response is a good example of how officials are starting to change their thinking about how to prepare for extreme weather. 

“The transit authority and port authorities do an awful lot of simulations and modeling on a regular basis,“ says Rich Cooper, a principal at Catalyst Partners and a fellow at the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute. “A lot of emergency responders have all drilled and looked at this stuff for a number of years. Now they're going to start taking a look at the models they've developed.”

In the first days after the storm, reporters turned up a 2011 report commissioned by New York state that identified the subway’s vulnerabilities to a storm like Sandy—this report has been used to show that officials knew about the danger of flooding at least a year before the storm. But New York started thinking more seriously about flooding in its subway system back in 2007, after an August 8 storm in which rain fell so hard and so quickly, normal drainage failed and water started pouring into the subway system. 

That storm forced the MTA to shut down large portions of the subway—“an unprecedented impact,” according to an MTA report. Starting then, the agency said it would take action to mitigate the risk of flooding. Its report included a number of potential actions to address the system’s vulnerabilities: more pumping capacity, portable pumps, step-ups at station stairwell entrances, and taller vent heights to keep water from flowing down steps and through grates. These were shorter-term measures that wouldn’t necessarily keep all the water out in a storm like Sandy. But they'd help.

“The NYC subway and board of the MTA system have learned a lot over the past five years,” says Steve Winkelman, who as a program director at the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP) has worked with cities across the country on climate adaptation. After the 2007 storm, he says, New York started asking the right questions: “What are the lessons we learned from this? What are our deficiencies? What are our priorities?”

The city began implementing many of the smaller-scale changes—elevated ventilation grates and subway entrances that would keep more water from running in off the streets. It also started looking at the pumping system and thinking about how to prepare the Second Avenue subway line, still under construction, for flooding. 

At the same time, the MTA began considering the bigger fixes it would need to bounce back from major climate events. In 2008, a team of scientists prepared a report for MTA that laid out a roadmap to help the agency respond to climate change—including to risks like flooding from extreme weather. This report set deadlines for the agency going forward: MTA needed to develop an “agency-wide policy for climate change adaptation” and by 2012, at the latest, go through a “thorough, quantitative vulnerability and risk assessment.” By 2015, the report says, the agency should have a “strategic climate change adaptation master plan.”

This was where the MTA was, more or less, when Hurricane Irene approached in 2011. Officials knew they needed to quantify the risk to the system, but they didn’t have that assessment in hand yet. Still, those in charge of the subway thought strategically about how to minimize the impact of Hurricane Irene. In advance of the storm, they shut down the subway system.

“That was the first pre-emptive service shut down in their history,” says Winkelman, the CCAP director. It’s a huge deal to shut down the subway system in New York, and a decision that’s not taken lightly. “They got ahead of the storm,“ says Winkelman. “They were ready. They blocked off tunnels. They moved some of the trains.”

After Irene, this precaution seemed like overkill, but it also helped accustom New Yorkers to the idea that, when a big storm threatens, the subways will shut down early. The city was lucky last year that Irene didn’t hit harder than it did. 

MTA is often thought of as a city agency, as it’s best known for running the New York City subway, but it’s a state-level agency. By 2011, the MTA was also working with other agencies at the state level on a task force for the ClimAID project—an effort to assess vulnerabilities across New York to climate change. It was this task force that produced the 2011 report that reporters uncovered earlier this week. The report did flesh out the details of what flooding would mean for the subway system, predicting, for instance, that “if all 14 tunnels crossing the river were to fill with water, it would take about five days of pumping per tunnel to clear them of water.” This 2011 report was exactly the sort of quantitative vulnerability assessment that the earlier report recommended that MTA complete by 2012. 

In other words, the MTA’s work is on schedule. It’s Sandy that jumped the gun. If the agency didn’t have a perfect plan for dealing with unusually large storm surges, it’s because independent experts had told them they could take until 2015 to create one. 

“It’s too soon to say how well they were prepared for this one,” says Winkelman. But the pre-storm subway shut-down “shows we can plan ahead.” Without that precaution, it’s possible the subway would have taken even longer to grind back into service.

This is one small example of the type of disaster preparedness that climate-change advocates, emergency managers, and Homeland Security officials have started pushing for. Instead of bracing for damage and then cleaning up afterwards, they want cities, citizens, and businesses to make plans and build infrastructure so that it can take a hit and get back on their feet as quickly as possible. In Washington, the Obama administration has started talking about shifting its policy away from “preparedness” and towards "resilience"—the ability to “rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies,” as one presidential policy directive put it.

The meaning of “rapid” depends on your perspective, of course. MTA head Joe Lhota probably feels like the recovery is going a lot faster than do the drivers that have been stuck down the street from my Brooklyn apartment all day, honking, waiting, crawling slowly towards the Manhattan Bridge in hopes of making it to an island whose lower third doesn’t have power.

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