As Hurricane Irene heads towards us, New York City will shut down the entire mass transit system beginning at noon on Saturday. This includes bus, subway, and railroad service. The shutdown will most likely continue through Monday. The complete shut down was proposed on Thursday, and Governor Cuomo gave it the go ahead Friday afternoon. It may seem extreme, but with the subway’s history of flooding and our city’s ancient combine sewer system, this may be the only way to keep our public transportation system in working order.
The New York City subway water drainage system is often criticized for being outdated and over-worked. There are 700 water pumps responsible for pulling 13 million gallons of water out of the subways on a sunny day. Some of the pumps are over 100 years old — and purchased secondhand from the Panama canal!
Back in the 1990s, a broken water main flooded the 125th street station so badly, scuba divers were sent down to fix it and a diesel-powered train car was used to carry the water out. It took an entire week to drain the whole station. Subways were also shut down in 2004 and 2007 (during rush hour no less!), due to 2 to 3 inches of rain in a one hour period. Authorities said if they had known of the storm’s severity, they could have prepared accordingly by throwing sandbags and wood over the vents.
Now that we vaguely know how intense Irene is expected to be, officials are preparing for the worst. A team of 200 hydraulic operators are standing by with portable pumps and the three most flood prone station areas: Jamaica, Tribeca, and the Upper West Side, all of which are on high alert. The current system can handle 1.5 inches of rain per hour and safely operates under winds of 39 mph or less. Irene is expected to drop 6 to 12 inches of rain with 90 mph winds, making a recipe for disaster.