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As MTA Subways Weather ‘100-Year Storms’ Every Month, ‘New Solutions’ Sought

September 6, 2021 By Jose Martinez, THE CITY
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The third major storm to soak the city since July once again turned some subway stations into a default sewer system. It marked the latest frightening example of the mass transit system’s vulnerability to extreme weather — which is becoming the norm.

As Bryan Roman began pulling a northbound No. 1 train into the 28th Street station around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, the veteran subway operator spotted a torrent of water ahead that “looked like Niagara Falls.”

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“That water, it was really a sight, it was frightening at first,” Roman, 46, told THE CITY. “But I quickly woke up and realized we have to get these people off the train.”

Video of flash flooding on a platform at the Chelsea station emerged as one of the most striking images of the third major storm to soak the city since July — a record downpour that once again turned some stations into a default sewer system and exposed the vulnerability of the 117-year-old subway system to extreme weather.

“New solutions must be found, and quickly,” said Lisa Daglian of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “These 100-year storms are turning into 10-year, sometimes 10-day storms.”

The remnants of Hurricane Ida— which the National Weather Service said dumped over three inches of rain on the city between 8:51 and 9:51 p.m. — led to service suspensions on most lines and caused delays that extended into Thursday evening on the subway and Staten Island Railway.

“It was an unbelievable amount of rainfall in an incredibly short amount of time,” Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters Thursday morning.

‘Here We Go Again’

Louis Santiago, a server at a Hudson Yards restaurant, could not catch the subway home to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, after getting off from work after 11 p.m. Wednesday. Instead, he and several coworkers were put up in a Times Square hotel by their employer.

“When I started seeing the videos, I was like, ‘Here we go again,’” said Santiago, 24. “My first thought was, ‘We are in big, big trouble.”

While the MTA could not provide an instant accounting of the level of damage to the subways, Hochul said vulnerable spots need to be identified.

“We need to be able to fix those first so we don’t get a situation where the drainage system, the sewer system, can’t handle the volume, and then the water just creates a river down the steps and into the subway system,” she added.

Flooding tore the face off a wall at Brooklyn’s Newkirk Avenue station.

‘Looked Like Something Exploded’ 

The downpour came less than two weeks after the remnants of Hurricane Henri flooded some stations. A July storm soaked some stops in Upper Manhattan and The Bronx.

In April, THE CITY flagged how, nearly nine years after Hurricane Sandy, dozens of projects designed to strengthen the transit system against catastrophic weather in the future remain unfinished.

Three months later, a July audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general found that more than half of the approximately $10 billion allocated to regional, state and city transportation agencies for Sandy-related repairs by the federal government has yet to be spent.

Also in July, the tri-state area-focused nonprofit Regional Plan Association put out a report saying New York City’s transit infrastructure is not prepared for climate change — especially rain-induced flash floods.

The RPA even mapped out which subway entrances would be affected by moderate and extreme flooding. According to the report, the 28th Street stop on the No. 1 line would be “likely affected” by more than three inches of rain in an hour.

That’s exactly what Roman encountered as he pulled a No. 1 train into 28th Street, where he and the train’s conductor evacuated all passengers from the station.

“It just started to flood the tracks, the station, the platform,” Roman said. “I called rail control to say it looked like something exploded.”

Rain gushed into the 116th Street station in Manhattan Wednesday.

Rain, With a Chance of Disaster

Klaus Jacob, a Columbia University geophysicist who warned before Sandy that the transit system had been “extremely lucky” to avoid major weather-related damage, said the latest subway soaking was not about storm surge but about stations being ill-suited for runoff water from the streets.

He noted that post-Sandy resiliency efforts in the subway were largely aimed at protecting the system from storm surge and tides — and that the city has a role to play in keeping its drainage systems clear.

“There are not enough measures to prepare for the influx of street flooding,” Jacob told THE CITY Thursday. “It hits home when the other problem is so far pretty unattended to, which is that the subway becomes the overflow sewer system.”

Ben Fried of TransitCenter, a research and advocacy organization, said the string of extreme weather events point to the need for the MTA to go beyond post-Sandy repairs.

“We’ve had two 100-year events within the span of two months,” Fried said. “Resiliency measures from the city and the MTA really need to escalate.”

Jacob said the MTA is aware of soft spots in the transit system, especially given the number of extreme weather events since Sandy.

“It’s not something that can’t be fixed,” he said. “It’s just something that there isn’t enough attention on or there’s not enough money.”

‘We Are in Big Trouble’

In a “Good Day New York” appearance on Fox 5 Thursday morning, MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber said the agency has “done a ton on coastal resiliency,” but acknowledged the need to take additional steps to combat flash flooding.

“We’re going to expand the resiliency efforts to look at these higher ground areas, higher elevation areas, in tandem with the City of New York which operates the street level drainage and sewer system,” Lieber said. “We have to attack that now in this era of climate change.

But with his subway access cut off late Wednesday, Santiago finally made it home to Bay Ridge around 11:30 a.m. Thursday — via a $45 Lyft ride.

“If this is what’s gonna keep happening, we are in big trouble,” he said. “Things like this, they just can’t keep happening.”


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