NEW YORK—The New York City subway system—built in large part in the early 1900s—has aged considerably over the years. Money for keeping up maintenance has been hard to find, not to mention protecting the valuable asset against any potential future storms.
“It is like an overcoat handed down through four generations and worn every day, yet never much more than patched when an elbow shows through,” said Projjal Dutta, the first director of sustainability for the MTA, in a Huffington Post op-ed.
“A system which went into service when the current riders’ grandparents were yet unborn, it needs a larger infusion of resources than transit in New York has ever had,” continued Dutta. “The scale of infusion requires political championing and popular consensus-building much beyond what an operating agency can muster.”
Interviews with experts and those directly involved with transit in New York City, and a review of about a dozen documents pertaining to sea level rise and flooding, show that the future of transit protection is as murky as the unprecedented amounts of corrosive saltwater that lingered in subway tunnels for days and weeks, disrupting millions of New Yorkers.
Now that you throw the storm effects into it, and the extremely corrosive rates of saltwater, you’ve got a very big problem on your hands.
—Rick Grant, Russell Corrosion Consultant
Flooding and Extreme Weather, Previously
The jarring impact of Superstorm Sandy was unforeseen, but not unforetold.
Flooding, especially, has over the years forced the MTA to evaluate its entire system. An unexpected storm in August 2007 dumped from 1.4 inches to 3.5 inches of rain in two hours across New York City, overwhelming pumps. That storm was preceded by two others in 2007—in April, 7 inches of rain fell, breaking a 1882 record—and one in 2004.
The latter prompted a review by the MTA’s inspector general and its board, and later a change to water and waste management, including the beginning of raising subway grates, which is thought to have prevented some damage from Sandy.
Additionally, a score of reports about the potential effects of a changing climate were published in 2006 and the next four years. Some were read and used by the MTA, which brought some report authors and experts, such as Klaus Jacobs of the Columbia Center for Climate Systems Research, in as advisers.
Dangers included shifting temperatures and heavier rainfall, but perhaps of most concern was the prediction—from at least as far back as 1997—that a sea level rise could begin turning what are called once in 100-year storms into once in 10-year storms, at least before the end of this century.
But these reports, written before hurricane turned Tropical Storm Irene, and years before Superstorm Sandy, were not yet connected to what drives reports home—a manifestation of what they outline.