Web Extra: New York City’s transit system bears up under historic storm

Posted on December 31, 2012

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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.

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