Flash flooding, other recent rough weather underscores vulnerability of NYC infrastructure

Local News

NEW YORK — A flash flood watch in effect until mid-morning Tuesday comes four days after flash flooding inundated some subway stations in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, and delayed traffic in the city and North Jersey for hours.

The current flash flood watch also comes three days after Tropical Storm Elsa added to the rainfall totals. The combination of conditions, and their effects, is placing a spotlight on how rough weather affects infrastructure.

The deluge of rain last Thursday evening dropped about a month’s worth in an hour’s time.  The storm drains surrounding stations, including the 157th Street location, simply weren’t able to keep up with the volume, in large part because those drains were clogged with trash people had thrown away.

However, that doesn’t explain why the landings of the stairwells at the station, which are lower than the platform, flooded, leaving some passengers in chest-high water.  

The MTA operates the subway stations, and is responsible for the maintenance of the stairwells.
Its acting senior vice president for subways, Demetrius Crichlow, said that the transit authority is at the ready for hazardous weather events, as well as regular operations.

“We pump about 14 million gallons of water on a regular day” from subway stations, Crichlow said in an interview.

He said that last Thursday’s subway station flooding couldn’t be helped.

“I think the challenge with a flash flood,” Crichlow said, is that “it could happen any place, any time.”

He added that the MTA has well developed plans in place, as well as more action forthcoming, to protect subway, commuter rail, and buses, in the event of catastrophic weather.

“For a hurricane,” he said, “we would be preparing to shut down” the whole system.

However, Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Laboratories who specializes in how climate change affects infrastructure, said that infrastructure issues have to be viewed from a very long-term perspective.

The reason for the long view, he said, is climate change.  

“Band-aid fixes, [like] raising entrances on subways, and so on,” Jacob said, “just won’t do it.”  

He said that he foresees our region and our country having to make massive investments in the decades ahead.

“We will really see an exponential rise in the cost of climate change,” said Jacob.  “We really will have to start seriously retreating from low-lying areas.”

He said that he foresees hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers having to relocate away from a coastline that’s increasingly underwater, and that millions of people nationwide will have to move away from coastal waters over the decades of this century.

In the meantime, New York is on course to implement congestion pricing to pay for some transportation improvements.  However, at 157th Street station, which saw some of the worst recent flooding, some riders, like Carolyn Shalah, who was on the platform waiting for a downtown No. 1 train, are skeptical.

“I am confident that we have the capacity to solve this problem,” she said.  “I am not confident that the city will use the budget to do so.”  

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