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Hurricane Sandy

Subway Chaos and the Man Who Saw It Coming

Workers pump flood waters from train tracks at Manhattan's South Ferry subway station

Photograph by Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times via Redux

Workers pump flood waters from train tracks at Manhattan's South Ferry subway station

1:50 p.m., Oct. 31, 2012 — The New York subway system, which maintains 468 stations and more than 600 miles of track, has an average weekday ridership of about 5 million people. Not one of them has been on a train since Sunday evening. Very limited service is set to resume on Thursday, thanks in part to the efforts of an un-watering SWAT team.

It is likely to take many more days before all those millions can get back on the trains. “The New York City subway system is 108 years old,” Joseph Lhota, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said the day after Hurricane Sandy flooded the tracks. “It has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night.”

That’s true. It’s also true that a report for New York State predicted just such a disaster. Researchers led by Klaus Jacob of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory estimated that after a 100-year storm (which seems to describe Sandy), it could take about 21 days to get the subway system working at 90 percent capacity. If all potential damage is considered, Jacob and colleagues warned that “permanent restoration of the system to the full revenue service that was previously available could take more than two years.”

In the report, the authors estimated that the economic losses, due to the failure of infrastructure systems in the entire New York metropolitan region, could range from $48 billion to $68 billion.

They also offer suggestions for redesigning and shoring up vulnerable infrastructure in New York—which would cost billions. Doing nothing would cost further billions. The authors concluded that for every one dollar we spend today, we would be saving four dollars in subsequent costs. “We missed it [the flooding of the subways] by one foot last August during Irene,” Jacob wrote in an e-mail to me before his phone battery ran out. “NYC should not be in the business of playing Russian roulette.”

The authors assume that these kinds of disasters are the result of climate change. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of the few politicians to agree. At a news conference on Wednesday, he said: “Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality.” And New York, with some of its crucial infrastructure underground, remains vulnerable.

Berfield is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York. Follow her on Twitter @susanberfield.

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