By Charles Seaton, MTA Deputy Director, Media Relations
For the men and women who run the MTA’s vast network of subways and buses, Superstorm Sandy was a trial, not by fire, but by wind and water. Sandy caused widespread and severe damage throughout the subway system, flooding stations and tunnels, destroying the right-of-way in exposed areas and causing catastrophic damage to the sensitive electrical and mechanical equipment that keeps the trains running.
In Lower Manhattan alone, the force of the unprecedented weather pattern sent the waters of New York Bay crashing over the sea wall at the Battery and into the streets. The swarming waters flooded under river subway tubes, a major subway terminal and two MTA vehicular tunnels. The water poured in past blocked subway entrances, through covered sidewalk grates and into the underground, stretching for thousands of feet and rising as high as the ceiling in at least two of the subway tubes.
“One or two tubes flooded? Yes we’ve seen that and we have corrected those conditions in the past,” said Joe Leader, Chief Maintenance Officer for the Department of Subways. “But to have eight subway tubes flooded simultaneously? That was incredible. But we didn’t stand around debating the logistics of the job; we rolled up our sleeves and got to work even before the storm had completely passed.”
An inconceivable amount of damage
Visual accounts of the damage were dramatic and readily available, posted often and widely by the MTA Press Office. The three-year-old South Ferry Station resembled nothing so much as a giant aquarium with waters lapping near the top of the escalator leading to the track level nearly 80-feet below. Just a few blocks away, the headquarters of NYC Transit was knocked out of commission for nearly a month by the surge of high water.
“This storm was a disaster that brought our system to its knees and it has rightfully been described as the greatest transit disaster in our nation’s history. With many parts of the New York City subway more than 100 years old and most of it in excess of 80, our system remains safe, but as Sandy pointed out, it is also extremely vulnerable,” said NYC Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast. “The damage that we sustained is significant and continues to affect how we provide service.”
That damage was not confined to Lower Manhattan. High water breached the defenses at three major subway yards and more than 100 downed trees blocked tracks along outlying line segments, such as the Dyre Line in the Bronx and the Sea Beach and Brighton Lines in Brooklyn. In Queens, the A line suffered significant damage between Howard Beach and the Rockaway Peninsula, including washouts and the total destruction of power and signal equipment that remained submerged in saltwater for several hours.
Additionally, platform canopies were ripped away from elevated stations while hundreds of tons of water-borne and wind-driven debris had to be removed from miles of elevated and below-grade right-of-way.
As bad as it was, things could have been worse — a lot worse. But by following well-established protocols, Transit management was able to restore about 80% of subway service three days after the storm because of planning, preparation and execution.
“We had a well-developed set of protocols that we followed and while you don’t have a storm every day, we do regular table-top exercises that keep us at the ready. Also, it is important to note that our plans included evacuations of areas in the city that were projected to be hit hard by the storm surge,” said Carmen Bianco, Senior Vice President, Department of Subways.
For the second time in as many years, the decision was made to shut down North America’s largest mass transit system well in advance of the arrival of a storm that had the potential to threaten life and cause severe damage. Throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday, NYC Transit was at the forefront of the effort to evacuate New Yorkers from low-lying areas, designated flood-zone A.
By 7 p.m., Sunday, October 28, MTA New York City Transit was beginning the process of an orderly shutdown that would take hours to complete. This included relocating thousands of subway cars and buses, normally stored in low-lying areas to safe areas during the storm.
That was the end of a week-long process that began while Sandy was still raging through the Caribbean. During that time, NYC Transit kept a watchful eye on the storm’s track and as it became increasingly evident that the Northeast was going to be in the bull’s eye, workers were dispatched throughout the system to prepare for a very unwelcome guest. Crews removed trash, cleaned drains and inspected pumps that remove 13 million gallons of water from the system even on days when there isn’t a cloud in the sky.
By the time Sandy arrived, NYC Transit’s Incident Command Center situated in the Rail Control Center was a hive of activity. Even though no trains were operating and buses had been pulled from their routes, reports came through nonstop from all corners of the massive system. There were incidents of downed trees, high water, flooded stations, as well as the occasional piece of good news — like the wooden wall erected to prevent the Harlem River from flooding the Bronx Tubes via the 148th Street Station was holding. The water was high, but it would not escape the confines of the 148th Street Yard.
Elsewhere, the news was not quite so good. Water rose to platform level in the Dyckman Street Station of the A line as it poured in from the 207th Street Yard, flowing from the Harlem River at a location that had never flooded in the 80- year history of the IND subway.
Compounding problems was the fact that Consolidated Edison, NYC Transit’s main provider of AC and DC power, had experienced their own issues. A blown transformer resulted in a blackout of the southern third of Manhattan. The immediate issue was a loss of pumping ability, but the longer term problem would be the inability to run trains south of 34th Street for several days after partial service was restored.[PAGEBREAK]
Taking the first steps back
The storm had not fully abated when inspection of the underground sections of the system began early on Tuesday, October 30th. Workers began examining outdoor segments later that day as the skies brightened and the winds subsided. Department of Stations personnel began staffing the booths in preparation of the restoration of partial subway service.
The next day, the first under river tube was pumped dry, third rail power was incrementally restored and test trains began operation by 7 p.m. At 12:01 a.m., Thursday, November 1, simulated service began running on 14 lines and limited passenger service was resumed by 5:10 a.m. Working close together, the Department of Subways and the Department of Buses teamed to create a bus bridge between Downtown and Williamsburg Brooklyn and Midtown Manhattan to replace service blocked by the flooded tunnels and the blacked out area of Lower Manhattan.
“This was an incredible effort requiring in excess of 370 buses which linked two halves of several subway lines. We moved hundreds of thousands of people between the boroughs, serving in effect as a bridge between Downtown Brooklyn and Midtown Manhattan where subway service was available,” explained Darryl Irick, Senior Vice President of Buses for New York City Transit and President of MTA Bus.
One by one, the tubes were reclaimed from the storm through the combined efforts of men and machines. NYC Transit’s fleet of three pump trains were called into action, along with portable pumps placed on work trains. The war against the rising waters was waged simultaneously along several fronts.
Thousands of gallons per minute were pumped from each of the tubes. When finally dry, workers went in to make assessments, clean debris that had been washed in and begin repair and replacement of critical parts that were found to be beyond repair.
The Joralemon and Steinway Tubes were the first two to be returned to service, allowing 4 and 5 trains to once again travel between Brooklyn and Manhattan and 7 trains to run between Manhattan and Queens. Over the next several days, similar work was carried out on all of the affected tubes but the biggest challenge was the Montague Street Tube, supporting R trains service between Court Street, Brooklyn and Whitehall Street Manhattan.
The tube was flooded for a length of approximately 4,300 feet with water reported to the tunnel ceiling— about 15 feet. Submerged equipment included relays, switch machines and cables. Highly corrosive salt water damaged approximately 50 cables to the relay rooms at the Whitehall and Broad Street stations, 48 signal locations with line and track relays, along with associated equipment.
With the flooding in the Montague Street Tube, the Whitehall Street pump plant was completely submerged, rendering all of the stationary pumping equipment, electrical feeds, and controls inoperable. Track, third rail and communications systems also suffered damage and is currently undergoing repair.
The signal department replaced relays, transformers, resistors, fuses, LEDs, pins and switch machines and two power locations. All stop motors were removed prior to the storm except for one which was replaced.
Service was restored through the Montague Tube on December 21 after workers pumped it dry of 27 million gallons of water, removed tons of muck and debris from the roadbed, steam cleaned tunnel walls and rebuilt the electrical and signaling systems.[PAGEBREAK]
Rising waters cut link to the Rockaways
The most exposed section of the New York City subway is the three and one half mile stretch of the A Line between the Howard Beach and Broad Channel Stations known as the Rockaway Flats.
Running for much of its length between Jamaica Bay and the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge, it resembles no other part of the New York City subway system. This vital link to the Rockaway Peninsula was violently severed when Superstorm Sandy sent waters crashing over and under the tracks, twisting steel rails, destroying the electrical and signal infrastructure and washing out hundreds of feet of track support. Additionally, more than 20,000 feet of fencing was destroyed and will have to be replaced.
Damage to that segment of the subway system was near-catastrophic, with the support grading washed away leaving tracks dangling in the air above rushing currents of water. Rails were heaved into a wavy pattern that resembled a mini-roller coaster and tons of debris was left strewn along the tracks after waters measured at four feet receded. Submerged in saltwater during the storm, the signal and power delivery systems were toast — for want of a better word — and they will remain that way for some time to come.
But five weeks after the storm, there were definite signs of progress. In fact, most of the damaged roadbed was repaired to a point where it is difficult to tell that only a couple of weeks prior, there was no roadbed. Over the weeks, a train of concrete mixers delivered and poured more than 700 cubic yards of concrete to fill and repair two major breaches, the largest of which was 270 feet across.
“We have been out here since three days after the storm, working to restore service for our customers. We have accomplished a lot, but there is a lot more work to do before passenger service can be restored. These areas have been hard hit and our contractor, J-Track, has been working from dawn to dusk seven days a week to restore subway service,” said John O’Grady Program Officer Infrastructure and Facilities for NYC Transit’s Department of Capital Program Management.
Men and track-borne machines are busy along the right-of-way straightening rail and dumping ballast, preparing the line for an eventual return to service for trains that carry more than 30,000 customers a day. In a makeshift construction yard created just south of the North Channel Bridge, a huge loader fills dump trucks with the 3,600 tons of debris that had to be removed from what was left of the tracks before work could even begin.
Everything had been dumped on the roadbed that you can think of and some things that you would never imagine. Heavy vegetation, boats, personal watercraft, logs-even a Coca Cola bottle dating back to 1902 were uncovered. This artifact was probably a remnant of the thriving beach and hotel community that existed on Jamaica Bay at the turn of the century. At one point, workers came across a backyard deck and chairs that had become detached from a neighboring home.
A walk through the Broad Channel Station was like visiting a ghost station. The floors and walls had been scrubbed and all the debris cleared, even the oil tank that had washed up on the Brooklyn-bound platform. To clear the station, a street crane was brought in to lift the debris over the station fence before depositing it in dump trucks. Everything appeared ready for service, lacking only customers and trains.
A return to service, however, will not come before spring as work continues to repair damage sustained by the power and signal systems.
As it always has during periods of adversity, NYC Transit will take the worst of Sandy and put it to good use. “There are lessons to be learned from this storm and we will be studying them for some time to come,” said Prendergast.