New York City Subway Flooding Demonstrates Transit System Vulnerability to Climate Change

Yves here. Climate change reporting has had plenty of big stories to chase of late: baked Alaska, the superheated Pacific Northwest, oceans and Siberia burning, the odds of yet another bad fire season in California. But super heavy rains in New York City just produced severe subway flooding, and not with a hurricane Sandy storm surge as the proximate cause. The new normal of wilder weather puts even more stress on already creaky public transportation systems.

By Jose Martinez. Originally published at The City on July 9, 2021

Even on a dry day, the MTA says it pumps 14 million gallons of water out of subway stations.

But on Thursday, as a month’s worth of rain deluged the city inside of two hours, the vulnerability of the subway went on full display in videos of commuters wading waist-deep into pool-like stations.

The Dyckman Street station on the A line in Inwood took on 28,000 gallons of water, the MTA said, while the B and D line’s Tremont Avenue stop in The Bronx was flooded by 15,000 gallons.

“If the rain is coming down at 100 gallons a minute and the pumps are 50 gallons a minute, you’ve lost the battle,” said Robert Paaswell, a distinguished professor of engineering at the City College of New York.

The sudden soaking of stations in Upper Manhattan and The Bronx, which typically do not experience heavy flooding, underscored the exposure of a nearly 117-year-old subway system not built for the extreme weather wrought by climate change.

The downpour also highlighted the resiliency challenges still facing the MTA and the city at large close to a decade after Superstorm Sandy swamped stations, tunnels and railyards.

“This is a teachable moment,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “Unfortunately, teachable moments tend to come from other people’s misery.”

The MTA displayed a warning about rain inside the 157th Street Street station in Manhattan Friday morning.Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Transit officials said Thursday’s flash flooding — which led to service being suspended for hours along the A line — overwhelmed the hundreds of pumps in the subway system, many in locations where workers had not been posted in advance.

Flooding From Street to Tracks

A transit source said the storm caused 110 scheduled trips to be canceled and 116 trains to arrive late. The rain also added to the mess at flooded stations as crews encountered obstacles while en route.

“They were trapped in traffic and because of closed roads,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit. “Because obviously, they’re trying to move pump trucks and equipment to those locations. It’s not like they can just bail out and walk.”

That was on top of the city’s drainage system already being pushed to its limits.

“If some of the gutters are not free of leaves or garbage, you have extensive flooding,” Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told THE CITY. “And when street flooding occurred in this mini valley in Upper Manhattan, the subway system essentially became a default sewer system.”

Prior to Sandy, Jacob had warned that the transit system had been “extremely lucky” at avoiding crippling damage from a major storm.

“I’m disappointed that the political process hasn’t recognized that we’re playing Russian roulette,” he said in a New York Times Magazine article one month before the 2012 superstorm.

The MTA has since embarked on a federally funded $8 billion push to strengthen underwater tunnels that flooded during the storm, along with protecting railyards and stations in flood-prone sections of the city.

Those efforts include installing floodwater protections at more than 150 station entrances and at 2,200 sidewalk grates, where water can pour into stations. Some stations in Lower Manhattan, where Sandy caused extensive damage, have vault-like doors that protect stations and rooms housing critical equipment. The section of the A line in the Rockaways, knocked out of service for months after the 2012 superstorm, has since undergone years of repairs.

Part of a ‘National Crisis’

Still, THE CITY reported in April that dozens of those projects designed to protect against future catastrophic weather events remain unfinished — including erecting miles of protective walls around subway yards in Upper Manhattan and Coney Island.

Jacob, who has done some pro bono work for the MTA on climate change resiliency, credited the agency for developing “very comprehensive plans” to protect transit infrastructure after the 2012 superstorm. But he said many of the “gadgets” come with a catch.

“When they perform as designed and planned, then actually the reduction of inflow of water is fantastic,” Jacob said. “The problem is that many of those devices need crews to go there and activate them or install them.”

Paaswell, a former executive director of the Chicago Transit Authority, said that despite the MTA’s efforts to stem flooding, there is no way to fully flood-proof the subway system.

“They’re doing what they can,” he said. “But it’s like in California — if there’s an earthquake you can’t get ahead of it.”

The MTA’s 2015 to 2034 “Twenty-Year Capital Needs Assessment” and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council’s “Plan 2045” both cite the need to improve the transit system’s resilience against major storms.

In addition, a September 2007 MTA report highlighted soft spots in the subway system after an August storm earlier dumped 1.7 inches of rain in less than an hour, disrupting service on every line during the morning commute.

Daglian said the lessons learned from earlier storms could have lessened the damage Thursday, but said transit systems face a “national crisis” when contending with extreme weather.

“There really needs to be a focus in the transportation legislation being developed now on proactive resiliency work to anticipate future problems,” she said. “That’s so as to not just respond to areas where there have been issues in the past.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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40 comments

  1. thoughtful person

    This story, about how climate change (actually better called the climate emergency) is affecting the NYC subway system is important because it’s happening everywhere. We just either aren’t paying attention or don’t know yet.

    Yves mentioned a few in the intro. I suspect that the Surf City condo collapse had contributions from sea water rise. The fires seen in CA and Australia are going to become more widespread.

    There will be systemic issues too. I worry about drought in a couple bread basket regions really putting a dent in the global food system.

    Reply
    1. Pwelder

      “When they perform as designed and planned, then actually the reduction of inflow of water is fantastic,” Jacob said. “The problem is that many of those devices need crews to go there and activate them or install them.”

      So when the crews don’t show up to turn on the pumps, we’re going to sing another chorus about climate change?

      OK, got it. Makes perfect sense.

      Reply
      1. GF

        They could train transit cops to flip the switch. But by no means allow the pumps and operators to be connected through the internet. Maybe an isolated landline network with no outside digital connections.

        Reply
      2. anEnt

        My favorite part is the consultant carrying MTA’s water and pretending nothing could be done because apparently weather forecasts don’t exist. It also serves to perpetuate learned helplessness in the face of climate change.

        Or even just weather. It is super hard to keep a flood out if you don’t use the weather forecasts and direct your workforce to activate whatever manual processes/devices exist ahead of a major storm…

        Paaswell, a former executive director of the Chicago Transit Authority, said that despite the MTA’s efforts to stem flooding, there is no way to fully flood-proof the subway system.

        “They’re doing what they can,” he said. “But it’s like in California — if there’s an earthquake you can’t get ahead of it.”

        Reply
        1. LifelongLib

          Maybe it damages the pumps etc if you run them when there’s no water? Thought that could be detected automatically though…

          Reply
  2. Chris Herbert

    Only Congress has the financial capacity to pay these bills. Without using debt. That’s one of the advantages of a fiat currency. No debt is required to fund Congressional spending. That we do use debt is criminal negligence. It’s a subsidy to insure the immense savings of the ultra rich.

    Reply
    1. JS

      Yes, but this problem isn’t limited to just NYC. Flooding is (or will be) major issue for other communities, including the South, where they have a propensity to offloading spending to federal govt, vis a vis low state taxes, while pretending to govern “responsibly”. See Champlain Towers saga for illustration.

      If one US tax dollars go to remediating climate change risks for Carl Ichan’s or Donald Trump’s or Tiger Wood’s or Jeb Bush’s or Tom Brady’s or etc. exclusive FL communities, I will freak out. FREAK OUT I tell you.

      Reply
      1. QuicksilverMessenger

        I leave it others to take apart the esteemed Jacobin Henwood’s argument, but I did see this in it: “Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, a promoter of the school, as a “conservative.”” Ok then!

        Reply
            1. Basil Pesto

              oh ok. I don’t want to speak for her but she seems to accept its tenets and disseminates them when necessary in posts? She doesn’t really proselytise for it (in the manner of, say, Kelton) just accepts it as a given having learned about it and weighed whether it’s true and goes from there, which to me is a good place to be. That’s just my impression anyway.

              Reply
      2. Basil Pesto

        setting aside his petulant tone policing, lame attempts at guilt by association, and agonising attempt to try and situate MMT correctly in the great cosmic left-right spectrum as though nothing could be more important, Henwood’s piece is disingenuous in several ways – the idea that MMTers haven’t meaningfully addressed questions of inflation is comically bullshit now, and it was in 2019. His complaint that MMT – a monetary theory – does not have all-encompassing answers for all economic problems of the day is transparently bad faith. Furthermore, he doesn’t come close to showing that the central observation – that taxes don’t fund spending for currency issuers with free floating sovereign currencies – is wrong. A link to the Daily Treasury Statement (lmao) does not cut the mustard. It’s remarkably sloppy in places (such as ‘Greece’s economy was bad before the Euro!!’ I mean, jesus christ).

        He’s done quite a bit more homework than most critics of MMT than I’ve seen, which makes his omissions and cherrypicking all the more intellectually suspect. His failure to seriously reckon with Mitchell’s contribution in particular – about as crusty ol’ a leftist as is possible to imagine (whose grasp of Marx, I suspect, far surpasses Henwood’s) – is somewhat illuminating. He’s written extensively, not to say obsessively, about just about every subject that he (Henwood) accuses MMT of not having tackled. Indeed, in trying to learn about MMT, Mitchell’s blog was an invaluable resource, as it’s well reasoned and in its voluminous archives has answers to just about every question that someone learning about these monetary operations for the first time and how they clash with the prevailing stories that we are told growing up and accept as received wisdom, might have. For those interested, he doesn’t go into Henwood’s argument specificslly in depth here (in reality, it contained little new or insightful), but he addresses similar attacks that were emerging at the time it was published.

        Reply
        1. Darius

          Henwood is the kind of socialist who is suspicious of MMT because it isn’t specifically Marxian. And also that it seeks to sustain the capitalist order. MMT doesn’t seek anything. It’s a theory.

          Henwood ends up parroting the same sky-is-falling deficit hysteria as the centrist and right wing deficit hawks. I can’t take him seriously anymore.

          Reply
          1. Paul Peloquin

            MMT theory could also be called MMT practice. I don’t remember tax increases
            or bond sales to cover the $2.1 trillion of quantitative easings following the Great Recession:

            $2.1 trillion
            There were three rounds of quantitative easing. From late 2008 until 2010, the Fed bought nearly $2.1 trillion (£1.3tn) of treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. The programme was halted when the Fed signalled that it believed economic conditions had improved.Sep 17, 201

            Reply
            1. Yves Smith Post author

              Wash your mouth out.

              QE is not net spending or money creation. It’s an asset swap. Bernanke even said repeatedly his intent was to lower longer bond yields and the spread of MBS v. Treasuries.

              It’s designed to move securities and investment prices, and only indirectly affects spending, via the wealth effect. See here:

              https://www.cnbc.com/id/100760150

              Reply
      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        If government could tax as many dollars back out of the economy as government is issuing and spending into the economy, then the inflation problem would be pre-empted and prevented.

        If government tax-clawbacked almost all those dollars from the Overclass where almost all of those dollars accumulate after having been spent and facilitated some real economic activity, then the lower class majority loses very few of the dollars it gained through the initial government spending of the initially-issued government dollars. What the Overclass would lose would be its excessive accumulation of dollars which it uses to buy domination over the Lower Class and buy all assets not nailed down by defensible public or lower class ownership. So that’s only a problem for the Overclass. And since I am not in the Overclass, its not my problem and I have no sympathy.

        Would that be the answer to the ” MMT-inflation” problem?

        Reply
  3. The Rev Kev

    I would say that stories like this will become more commonplace over time. Our infrastructure has not really been built with resiliency in mind and when you get a flood or hurricane or even this heavy storm in New York city, the result is chaos. With the rise of sea levels hitting the east coast, New York may have even bigger problems to deal with down the track if you will.

    But that video of that woman making her way to the trains was crazy. I don’t see how the trains can still be running. In my misspent youth I was working for the railways for awhile and we learned that when train drivers could no longer see the train tracks in front of them because they were submerged in rain, they had to come to a complete halt. So I wonder if those trains running in new York could still see their train tracks what with all the flood water.

    Reply
  4. Mo.B

    “The Dyckman Street station on the A line in Inwood took on 28,000 gallons of water, the MTA said, while the B and D line’s Tremont Avenue stop in The Bronx was flooded by 15,000 gallons.”

    Obviously not right. 28,000 gallons would flood a house but not a subway station. It would make it a little wet on the floor.

    Reply
    1. juno mas

      Yes, 15,000 gallons covers about 90 feet square to 3″ depth.

      It appeared to me that the space the woman was walking though had waist deep water, but the tracks not so much. In any case, climate change is going to put a wrench in the works.

      Reply
  5. pnwarriorwomyn

    The most hi-lar-ious thing about the flooding was that a mere few days before, on July 2, 2021, the City of New York at Twit-thing handle, @nycgov, posted a cloudy and storm-approaching photograph of the Manhattan skyline and said, “A gloomy day in New York City is still better than a sunny day in Cleveland.” File at @PoorlyAgedStuff. As a native of NE Ohio, I was laughing about it for hours.

    Reply
  6. jr

    A small picture anecdote of the climate crisis in action:

    My partner’s buddy has a tiny wooden deck out in back of her apartment. It’s falling apart, literally. When we moved here a few months back I helped her do some gardening and such and I noted that it was in pretty bad shape.

    I visited again a few days ago. The deck has grown strikingly worse in the last two months. Old wood that has been saturated with unrelenting rain then baked to a crisp for days literally starts turning to dust. It starts breaking off in little cubical shapes that you can grind up with your fingers. It’s a safety and fire code inspectors fantasy, rusted screws gaping up where the boards have just collapsed in.

    It’s quite a parable for our times. The landlords aren’t going to tear it down anytime soon, probably not until someone gets hurt. Our friend says that agents for the landlord still show off the deck to prospective tenants, trying to happy-talk the fact that it’s an obvious wreck. None of the tenants seem inclined to raise a stink about it. So it’s just rotting away at breakneck speed. I went over there this morning and there are fungi growing on the old wooden deck chairs. One of the wooden planters is bulging from the saturated soil pressing against it’s walls. Boards have literally popped out of the screws holding them and stick out at odd angles. It’s basically 2021.

    Reply
    1. XXYY

      Elites have had a 50-year, $40 trillion frat party instead of putting the money into maintaining the house.

      Now the roof is blowing off, the basement is flooding, the HVAC doesn’t work, and the servants are quitting and calling in sick.

      Looks like it might be a teardown at this point!

      Reply
  7. Eye 65

    Chicago metro has kept up with infrastructure of this nature:
    Illinois & Michigan Canal 1840s
    Chicago River diversion/reversal 1880s
    Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal 1900
    Cal-Sag Canal 1910
    Little Calumet River Locks
    Deep Tunnel 1970s – ongoing for expansion into various hollowed-out limestone quarries.

    Still, in the area where a newer 6000 square foot, $2,500,000 house with a deep basement and a $75 made-in-China burned-out sump pump (not a power interruption) will have the restoration contractors busy at the neighbors’ houses for weeks after a heavy rain. Not an ‘infrastructure’ matter. Whoocoodanode?

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Anyone who could afford a $2,500,000 house and can afford to live in it probably believes in International Free Trade. If what you describe is not just a future hypothetical, but is something which actually happened to someone and you actually know about it, then it may be said that they have eaten of the fruits of the Free Trade which they support.

      And if all that is indeed so, then they should shut up and be happy that they could take one for the Free Trade team.

      Reply
  8. synoia

    Simple solution.

    Flood the whole system. Change the trains to passive, water current propelled boats. The water can propel the passive boats between stations. /s

    London is also susceptible to this problem, as are probably many other cities.

    PS: I am aware that subway system tunnels are at varying depths below the city.

    Reply
      1. juno mas

        Disneyland opened in 1954 (I was there.) Today the water ride that would mimmick a flooded NYC subway would be the Finding Nemo submarine ride. A full underwater adventure!

        Reply
        1. The Rev Kev

          Fort Lauderdale is having Musk’s Boring Company build a tunnel going out to the beach. Because of the geology of Florida alone it will flood so perhaps it might be better to turn it into a tunnel for a commuter submarine instead.

          Reply
          1. rob

            the fact that musk is allowed to pretend he is not a moron, and has all the money to gloss over his incompetence, yet still gets “professionals” in local regulatory capacities to sign off on something so obviously “stupid” as digging tunnels, beneath a low lying piece of land that is porous and will be increasingly underwater in the future; just shows that the climate situation is not being taken seriously. It is still something that those who are currently ripping off humanity, are just trying to get their seat at the trough, for the next “free lunch”. All showing that long term thinking has been banned in official circles.

            Reply
  9. drumlin woodchuckles

    The big cities ( a million people or more) are million-casualty death traps waiting to be sprung on their unlucky and unfortunate inhabitants. Those who understand that and who can quietly flee should begin tiptoeing out of the big cities towards small and tiny cities and small and tiny towns.

    Many who could understand and choose not to . . . . and who could flee and choose not to . . . have chosen their own fate. Let Darwin take them.

    Many who can’t flee, or have nowhere to flee to, are part of an unfolding tragedy of demographic dimensions. I don’t know what to say or what to offer. Mockery of their tragedy is not helpful.

    Small city and towndwellers should begin planning for their own separate survival. Transition Town . . . Power Down . . . etc. People living in cities and towns where the majority do not believe in Transition Town and Power Down, and will not allow it to be put into practice, should find cities and towns where a commanding majority DO believe in these things . . . . and flee to those cities and towns.

    Suburbanites on medium to biggish lots should begin preparing to survive in neo-peasant neo-Haitian type squalor. Survival in squalor is at least survival. Which is more than the inhabitants of million-person-plus cities have to look forward to.

    Reply
    1. Starry Gordon

      This has been known for some time. It seems unlikely that anyone will do anything about it except say they have spent a lot of invisible money. In fact what you’re describing is something like what happened during Sandy. A storm coming in from the southeast is focused by the shoreline right up the yazoo, as we will wind up calling the Narrows one day.

      Reply
  10. rob

    the thing is ,like all the ravages of time…. time has the upper hand.
    NYC is a fragile system. The fact that on the manhattan island there are multiple stories of tunnels beneath the city, all surrounded by water, and filled with infrastructure that wasn’t built to be submersed; means that one day it will be totally wrecked by water.
    And whatever happens in the next few years… isn’t really “the problem”… it is for-evermore after that.
    Are the “fixes” gonna hold? not a chance.
    The hundred plus year old water supply pipes, the electrical/communications equipment below the city….the gas lines, etc… are all going to be obsolete some day.

    Look at the extremely “weak” storm “sandy”… that would have been a “nothing burger” were it to hit any part of the south that does get hit by real hurricanes…. but in NYC it wrecked the place. because they just didn’t have to build the city to worry about that. But now that the worry will be there from sea level rise, it is too late… the city is built. And one day, like all the old cities and ruins under water near coastlines in “older” places…. it will be something of the past. Look at Venice… it may have been built on 118 little islands (or so) but the water levels were lower… so besides the sinking of the land, the rising water…. what was built a while ago…. doesn’t have the same relationship with the land where it exists.
    NYC will have that happen as well… but venice didn’t have 5 stories of tunnels below it filled with 20th century electrical equipment, that makes life in the city possible… it will be called a rude awakening…

    Reply
    1. Mikey Joe

      Dyckman St subway is underground but the Number 1 El is just a few blocks away. Some storm drains in NYC are connected to the sewer sytem. When there is deluge like last week the storm drains backup. There is a lot of new work done by City to install permeable surfaces at parks, sidewalks and schools. Also rain gardens are being constructed around the 5 boroughs to alleviate local flooding.

      Reply

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