How will they fix New York?
October 31, 2012 8:32 AM   Subscribe

How long will it take NYC to fully recover from Hurricane Sandy?

I heard a news report that the longest subway tunnel is now filled with a volume of water that would fill the Empire State Building. I'm guessing some sections of the subway will start to reopen sooner than others, but the quantity of water that must be pumped out - to say nothing of subsequent repairs - is staggering.

I'm a complete noob when it comes to things like civil engineering, disaster recovery, etc, so I'm not quite sure (beyond pumping out the water) what sort of repair activities will have to take place to get NYC back to pre-hurricane operations. How long is this going to take, and what do they have to do?
posted by ben242 to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
We just don't know. Even after the majority of water/debris is removed, and the place dried, the switchgear (e.g 250k!! relays, 2.5k switches!) and electrics ALL has to be tested; both on an individual and system level.

As much as not having subways sucks, having entire lines that malfunction (or worse!) with tens of thousands of commuters on them would be more terrible still.
posted by lalochezia at 8:37 AM on October 31, 2012

I have no idea. I hear that the Army Corps of Engineers will come help with pumping out the flooded tunnels, for one thing.

Econblog (great blog, btw) on The Outlook for New York; NYT on the recovery.
posted by lyra4 at 8:43 AM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a native Houstonian who's seen people dig out from hurricanes and bad tropical storm flooding (Allison) over the years. My experience is months to years to recover and some of what was underground--we don't have much of that in Houston precisely because of flooding--will have to be completely rebuilt.

They won't even be able to estimate how long the repairs will take until the floodwaters are pumped out, and even then, it's not like there's any other case like this to judge how long repairs will take. Probably the closest thing is the WTC fallout and I know that station was reopened in November of 2003 but they were still upgrading it for the permanent station the last I heard. So assume that disruption is the new normal.
posted by immlass at 8:45 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Completely recover: in one way never, as this is game-changing event in terms of showing how vulnerable the New York infrastructure is to big storms, floods and surges. If there is a similar, damaging, event in the next few years - and there will be constant speculation about this - then it becomes a "Is it possible to protect NY in some way long term" issue, with the prohibitive (and maybe impossible) costs of either massive flood defenses, or moving the infrastructure somehow above ground.

On a much tinier scale, the third and hopefully last hurricane strength storm I endured was after moving to a Scottish island archipelago. People died; one family tried to escape from rising flood waters but were swept off their island causeway. Flocks of sheep were literally blown away. Beaches disappeared, old ruins revealed.

The infrastructure was eventually fixed, but socially things were never the same. People talked, still talk, about when (not if) it will happen again. Will the infrastructure be fixed again, or will people just leave? Christchurch in New Zealand has similar issues. Multiple devastating earthquakes. Some people, businesses, stay and rebuild; others leave.

As the US has many millions of residents very close to the coast, this issue will be a more prominent one on the domestic agenda from now on. It can't be put off or ignored. Some politicians will attempt to pass the buck, kick it into their successors in-tray. More storms, floodings, will make sure its impossible to ignore.
posted by Wordshore at 9:08 AM on October 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Parts of New Orleans were (and are still) basically abandoned after Katrina. While New York is obviously much richer and more important as a symbol, it could be years/decades to get everything back to normal (for whatever value of normal you'd like to use).

And here's the thing for a lot of the flooded stuff: Water, particularly seawater, is pretty bad for everything, especially metal, so all that stuff will need to be cleaned/checked/tested/watched for corrosion.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:19 AM on October 31, 2012

In the Loma Prieta Earthquake in San Francisco in 1989, the Oakland-Bay Bridge was seriously damaged and it took them only 1 month to repair it. That was only structural damage, there was no electrical component like there is with subway.

What will happen is that more busses will be deployed to catch the overflow from the subway (just as ferries were employed to move people from one side of SF Bay to another).

More people will be working from home if it's possible. Schedules may be altered to accomodate commuters and their now longer commutes.

There will be PTSD issues. I still get anxious when driving on freeway flyovers, underpasses and bridges.

And just so you know, it's typical for authorities to DOWNPLAY damage and deaths attributed to natural disaster, so however bad it looks to you, it's WAY worse.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:26 AM on October 31, 2012

It also depends on which PART of New York you're talking about.

The big expensive important parts, where all the businesses and rich people are, will get priority. Because it always does. Even in lower-level disasters - that blizzard we had the day after Christmas a couple years ago hit everyone, but the plows were out on the street in Manhattan right away the morning after and that was clear and ready to go within only 24 hours. Meanwhile, there were remote parts of Brooklyn and Queens that didn't see a plow for three WEEKS. (Bloomberg got a LOT of critcism for that, by the way, which was part of what influenced him being all over the damn place preparing for Irene and for this storm.)

My hunch is that they're going to get around to restoring power to Lower Manhattan a little quicker than they get around to restoring things on Breezy Point. Same with subway service to either location.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 AM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

In the Loma Prieta Earthquake in San Francisco in 1989, the Oakland-Bay Bridge was seriously damaged and it took them only 1 month to repair it.

But they also determined that the eastern span would need to be replaced. Twenty-three years later, it is still under construction. It is expected to open to traffic next year.
posted by ryanrs at 11:01 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

My hunch is that they're going to get around to restoring power to Lower Manhattan a little quicker than they get around to restoring things on Breezy Point. Same with subway service to either location.

The only non-shuttle subway services that do not have a section in Manhattan below 34th are the 7 and the G, so restoring power to lower Manhattan is absolutely necessary if you want the subway in the entire rest of the city to function anywhere close to normally. The lack of power there is a major problem for anyone in New York who wants to go anywhere.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 11:01 AM on October 31, 2012

Which reiterates my point that the more central parts of New York will get restored first, but the far-flung parts may lag well behind.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:32 AM on October 31, 2012

The city will noticeably recover in 1 week.

This means, the city life that matters to you, the average resident. The rest of the recovery will take 2 years (usually follows election cycles), up to 8 years, including new infrastructure changes, the kinds you hear Gov. Cuomo already planting the seeds in our mind for.

The reason why the "far-flung" parts and Breezy Point get 2nd attention is because very few people live there compared to Lower Manhattan. Silly to turn into rich vs. common issue - it's a case of best use allocation of limited resources.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:55 AM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Subway will be running above ground on some line tomorrow. I'm not sure how they're doing this, but I know the J will take people to the Williamsburg bridge, drop them off where they can get a bus.

I really wonder how many extra buses they have to deal with things. Where do they suddenly find the extra thousand or so bus drivers to take up the subway passengers? And what happens with traffic? (I spent over 2 hours on an express bus today as we tried to get onto the Queensboro bridge.)

The Wall Street Journal had this interview with a VP at Con Ed. There's ass-covering of course, but there is the estimate of up to 2 weeks to restore power to everyone.
posted by Hactar at 12:19 PM on October 31, 2012

You also need to distinguish between public and private spheres of responsibility. Breezy Point homes are not the city's to fix (although as I asked last night, many homes there are part of a co-op, so I wonder how the financials will actually play out). There are plenty of reasons to get Manhattan fixed that aren't based on who's richer -- it's the central hinge for almost all of the city's subway lines, as noted, and it's where a hell of a lot of the JOBS are for people who LIVE in the boroughs. There's also still a fair amount of commercial activity in lower Manhattan that serves the rest of the city -- logistics, food preparation, etc. -- even if there's nothing like the industrial presence that was there in past generations.

This has comparisons to Katrina in some ways, but it's also a misapplication as Katrina was a special case where floodwaters were trapped in "the bowl" and just stayed there rotting out houses and their foundations. I predict that this brief surge will have damaged many buildings in Zone A cosmetically but structural repairs will be on the whole minimal. You're not going to see vast areas of either New York or New Jersey that just have to be demolished and left vacant for perhaps years to come; there may be localized small neighborhoods but on the scale of the metropolitan region they're going to be nearly indistinguishable from other blight issues that have plagued the less-affluent sections for most of the postwar period.

The major issue is just going to be the cost of recovery and the knock-on effects such as lost jobs or productivity.

Long-term there are other issues that will crop up. As a onetime resident of Jersey City I saw the beginnings of the recovery of that city's downtown as a back-office annex to Wall Street and Lower Manhattan, something that accelerated after 9/11, but now Goldman Sachs finds its facility there just as compromised as the one across the river and is rethinking that strategy. I suspect the double-whammy of Irene and Sandy may limit or delay or balloon the costs of redeveloping Governors Island. Who knows what the fallout will be if there are signficant delays or costs at Ground Zero. But overall I don't think this is going to have the effect of knocking New York down, more like kicking it in the solar plexus.

That said, your question was in some sense about specific things they need to do in the subways. Keep in mind there are a lot of systems here. The railbeds need to be inspected for washouts and loss of physical integrity. The high-voltage third-rail systems need to have components inspected and replaced. Any transformers or other stuff underground like wiring may need to be completely replaced, although if you've ever seen a power crew at work that can be surprisingly quickly done individually; it's just that there would be lots of crews needed. The subways have digital signalling systems that feed to centralized dispatch offices and that all needs to be tested -- literally by driving trains through them one signal block at a time. And that's just the subway infrastructure itself. Look at some of the MTA video and you'll see the stations have equipment in them, like expensive electronic farebox/turnstiles, that may need more than just drying them out. Escalators will be stripped down and components replaced before they work again (and expect them to be wonky for years to come). Walls of tilework have completely come down; stairs may no longer be structurally safe. You may have stations with service on one platform but not another, trains that operate local instead of express, and so forth. Still, I predict they'll be able to restore limited service on almost all lines sooner than you think. The vast majority of the trackage in service was almost certainly unaffected -- it's a big system. So even having critical under-river crossings out of service for weeks (?) is only a disruption, it isn't shutting down the system by any means. The "longest subway tunnel filled with water" isn't even 1% of the system. Manhattan, in particular, is a hillier place than many think it is, and almost all of the subways there were built cut-and-cover style, right below street level. That is going to be dry as a bone outside of some limited areas such as Lower Manhattan. One of the photos of a flooded station I saw turned out to be near Coney Island, where they didn't even do the "cover" part -- due to elevation the tracks may be below surge level but are probably not below sea level. That looks like a mess but won't be nearly as difficult to get running again.
posted by dhartung at 1:03 PM on October 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

I actually think the timeframe is going to be a lot shorter than others have suggested.

For example, the subways. I assumed it would be weeks before any subway service resumed, yet within 2 days of the storm, the city will restore limited service to parts of the system that were not horribly flooded. Similarly, commuter rail service is being restored today. Grand Central Terminal has been reopened already, which implies that the Metro North system is largely unaffected.

Luckily, unlike Katrina, the badly damaged areas are largely self-contained. You have the Red Hook and Coney Island areas of Brooklyn, the barrier islands in Queens (Breezy Point, the Rockaways, etc), and Manhattan below 34th street. One of those areas consists largely of some of the most valuable real estate in the US -- it's hard to believe that it would really take decades to restore power and subway service to Lower Manhattan, or that this is a place that would realistically be "abandoned".

I will say that it's likely that things will return to normal in Lower Manhattan very quickly, while the poorer and less high profile communities will suffer for years. If I had to guess, I'd say that life will return to somewhat normal for most people within a month or two. Some people will be impacted for longer than that, and there will probably be complications that run just under the surface for months or years down the road. Probably in ways we can't entirely imagine.

Meanwhile, life will quietly continue to be grim and difficult for people who live in places like Far Rockaway and Brighton Beach, because those are already underserved communities with little access to resources.

Interestingly, basic infrastructure is already miles ahead of where it was in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. I remember my grandmother in a relatively unaffected part of New Orleans complaining about not getting mail delivery months after the storm. I got mail yesterday in Brooklyn. As in, mere hours after the storm had passed. So in a lot of ways, we are so far ahead of a Katrina scenario that it's probably not worth comparing the two storms.
posted by Sara C. at 1:48 PM on October 31, 2012

(I actually saw the Army Corp of Engineers today and they let us know that they'd be there 24/7 until the subway was dry and were extremely grateful when we lent them a porta-potty)

Niche assessment:

I work in a garden that was significantly flooded during the tidal surge. Since the tidal surge was salt/brackish water, we can already see some plants are dying, but we won't know if they're going to come back until the spring. We'll be spending some time in the next weeks researching how our list of plants deals with salt.

Not niche assessment:
(this is the work of someone I know)
A study of Hurricane Katrina-related deaths which tries to answer the question of whose deaths are a result of this hurricane - both directly and indirectly. The methods of this study can be applied to Hurricane Sandy. The trail of these effects obviously goes on for years.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:49 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

This "article" in the Onion has, perhaps grimly, more than a grain of truth in it.
posted by Wordshore at 4:54 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

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