Thursday’s Downpour Could Have Been Worse For The Subway System

Despite horrific videos of riders wading through waist-deep water to enter a Washington Heights subway station, Thursday’s storm didn’t appear to impact the majority of the subway stations or service.

There were only five storm-related incidents that were reported to the MTA’s Rail Control Center during Thursday’s weather event caused by Tropical Storm Elsa. One involved a worker who slipped and fell, while others were related to train delays. Those incidents were centered in Manhattan and the Bronx, where the most rain fell, according to a source familiar with the reports.

Responding to the now-viral video of the flooded 157th Street station, Sarah Feinberg, interim president interim of New York City Transit, said Thursday evening that crews were delayed getting to the station.

“Our crews had trouble getting to those places as quickly as they would want in some of those cases because they were trapped in traffic and because of closed roads,” she said. “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, they’ve got equipment with them.” 

During Thursday’s storm there were 3.5 inches of rain in the Fordham section of the Bronx by 8:45 p.m., and 2.9 inches in Washington Heights. 

While most trains kept running throughout the storm, there were some delays. There appear to have been 110 one-way train trips that were canceled because of the weather, and 116 arrived late to the terminals. 

But those numbers stand in stark contrast to a one-hour downpour in 2004 during a morning commute which quickly dropped 1.76 inches of rain, but impacted nearly every subway line with delays that continued throughout the day. That storm canceled 1,156 train trips, according to the MTA.

At that time, the MTA said it was a 50- or 100-year type of storm, but experts said rainfall like that could be expected every 10 years. The poor management that day led the MTA’s Inspector General to issue a report looking at what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again. 

The report found basic issues had caused flooding, like clogged drains full of trash, or made the situation worse, such as a bad communication about where the problems were and a lack of smaller more portable gear to pump flooded stations, ultimately issuing 21 recommendations. 

But it wasn’t until the catastrophic service failures of 2017—power outages, storms, a derailment—  that led Governor Cuomo to implement the $836 million Subway Action Plan, that the gunk really got cleared out of the drains. 

Just last month the governor decided that the “state of emergency” the MTA had been in—which had required emergency drain cleaning—concluded.

Robert Passwell, distinguished professor of civil engineering at City College of New York, was hired by the Federal Transit Administration after the 2004 subway flooding incident to devise a plan for low-lying transit agencies. He recommended installing flood doors, and shutting parts of the system down so riders won’t be stranded.

“But there’s only so much you can do, storms are unpredictable. You don’t know where or when the rain is going to occur or it’ll get ahead of you,” he said.

He said what’s different between now and the 2004 flooding is that riders have more information about what’s happening in real time, and the MTA does a better job of communicating alternative routes. 

“It’s going to get better in the next couple of years,” he said.

While the MTA’s communications may improve, extreme weather events like the one on Thursday are only expected to increase.

Since Hurricane Sandy the MTA has installed 4,000 flood-preparedness measures in Manhattan to protect stations from being flooded in a storm with the same intensity as Superstorm Sandy.

Dr. Klaus Hans Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute who served on New York city’s climate panel from 2008 to 2019, and studied these efforts, believes they’re effective, to a point.

“The problem is, or potential problem is there’s no redundancy in the system,” Jacob said. “If a couple of the entrances flood, the entire system could be inundated with water. So if they don’t perform the way they were meant to perform, then the subway system can be in trouble again.”

He added, “It’s a little bit the story of the weakest link in the chain.”