When New York commissioned a 2011 study examining what might happen to New York City’s mass transit system if a hurricane struck, the findings were alarming -- and perhaps prophetic.
A Category 1 storm like Hurricane Sandy or a more serious Category 2 would produce a storm surge capable of flooding all but one of the vehicle and train tunnels that allow millions of people to cross the Hudson and East rivers each day, the study concluded. And with an average capacity to hold 35 million gallons of salt water each, pumps and crews working around the clock would be lucky to restore subway service in a week. Worst case scenario: repair work could take anywhere from 21 days to several months.
Fortunately for New York and the estimated 8.7 million people who rely on the city’s mass transit system each day, just one feature of that forecast proved wrong. One week after Hurricane Sandy upended life in the New York metro area, 80 percent of subway service has been restored, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Sunday. The Metropolitan Transit Authority has so far beat the odds.
“Today was the first work day and I am happy to report things there went relatively smoothly,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said during an early afternoon press conference Monday.
Yes, all but one tunnel flooded. Yes, three subway lines remain completely still. And yes, trains running during rush hour Monday morning were packed and arriving less frequently than usual. But most of the city’s major subway lines -- the 1,2,3, 4, 5,6, A,C and E –- made stops at most of the network's 468 stations. Other lines, including the N,R,Q, Staten Island Railroad, Metro North and Long Island commuter lines offered more limited service Monday. Only New Jersey’s Path trains and three New York subway lines, the B,G and Z , remained totally still. Transit officials said Monday they do not have a clear timeline for when the entire subway system -- the artery that moves 70 percent of transit users around the area each day -- will return to normal.
"The crews are out there working through the night to try to get service up and the system full restored," said Marisa Baldeo, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. “I can say without reservation we’re doing everything we humanly can.”
The subway system is so close to full operation that on Saturday morning Bloomberg suspended emergency measures banning vehicles carrying fewer than three people from entering Manhattan. Bloomberg issued the order last week after gridlock set in inside Manhattan then stretched into Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and New Jersey, turning what was usually a 45-minute commute into a four-hour ordeal.
On Tuesday at midnight, Bloomberg will put an end to another set of vertigo-inducing transportation rules. An emergency order giving yellow cabs the option to pick up multiple passengers headed to different locations will be lifted. Bloomberg will also eliminate emergency rules allowing livery cabs -- the black town cars that normally rule the car-for-hire landscape in upper Manhattan and Brooklyn -- to pick up passengers anywhere in the city. The measures required everyone -- passengers and drivers -- to negotiate the price of a ride and somehow agree on a price.
“I don’t like to haggle,” said LaNell Dinkins, a home health care aid who works in Manhattan but lives in the Bronx. ”So that was too much for me. I really prefer to swipe my Metro card.”
When the city’s subway system shut down, Dinkins was reminded that New York is a city of islands connected by man-made structures and technology. Last week with her cell phone working only sporadically and her Internet service down, Dinkins wasn’t sure how family and friends in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn fared in the storm. Dinkins, her mother and her sister cannot afford land line phones. On Saturday, the first day trains running near her home in the Bronx were able to cross the East River and enter Brooklyn, Dinkins took a ride.
“I really saw how easy it is to be cut off in New York City,” Dinkins said. “That train let me put my arms around my mother.”
But for every report of a transit system and city inching back towards normal, inconveniences and frustrations remain. In sections of Brooklyn closest to Manhattan Monday the line to board a ferry and cross the East River stretched for blocks. And on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where partial subway service resumed last week, some commuters said they had waited 13 minutes for a train.
“Standing here I’m reminded of something my daughter likes me to read to her,” said Adam Miller, a software developer who works near Midtown Manhattan and lives on the Upper East Side, while waiting for a 4,5 or 6 train at 96th Street. “It’s a little book called, ‘Could be Worse.’”
The Huffington Post is eager for insights from our community, especially people with experience in power, infrastructure and engineering, on the adequacy of emergency preparation in advance of Hurricane Sandy, and the degree to which past disasters have informed adequate planning and construction. Please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org with insights and suggestions for the important questions that need to be asked of relevant private sector and government officials, and point us toward stories that need to be pursued.