The NYC Subway Is Going to Flood A Lot and There's Nothing We Will Do About It

Welcome to the Climate Change Era.
Flooded subway station in the Bronx
David Dee Delgado via Getty
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

It is currently 68 degrees and sunny outside in Brooklyn and the subway is not running. That's because last night an historic amount of rain fell on the city as the remnants of Hurricane Ida passed over the region. Central Park received more than seven inches, Newark Airport almost eight and a half. 

All of that water has to go somewhere, and since much of the city is covered in asphalt, the water flows. It flows to storm drains if it can, but when those clog with leaves, branches, garbage, or simply too much water, it pools and flows elsewhere. The next place for it to go is in the subway.


We are nine years from Superstorm Sandy and the $5 billion in damage it caused to the city's subway system. Ida was basically the opposite of Sandy, which dropped relatively little rain but came with a huge storm surge. Either way, water flowed.

Despite all of the tunnel shutdowns, repairs, money spent, and work the MTA has done in this time, it's easy to feel on a day like today the subway is no better prepared for climate change since the storm that was frequently described as a "wake up call." As New York City Councilmember Mark Levine tweeted last night, "We are BEYOND not ready for climate change."

It is tempting to blame the MTA, as New Yorkers are wont to do, for hitting the snooze alarm on this wake up call. But that misses the more nuanced reality about the infrastructure we've built in a previous age and its compatibility with the uncharted territory we find ourselves in, as well as an abject failure of political leadership to take responsibility rather than spout vague platitudes and buzzwords while treating the climate emergency like any other political issue that can be exploited for votes with little intention of action.

The first problem is one of history. This reality was captured by a former colleague of mine, Neil deMause, who in 2016 wrote a feature for the Village Voice about how the MTA can (or, perhaps, cannot) "plug a million holes." When the subway was built, the primary concern for its engineers was not flooding, but ventilation. You can see this, particularly in stations on the numbered lines, where there are often storm grates at street level visible from the platforms. That was to allow fresh air in and let heat rise out. Now, it lets water in. So do the holes in the ground normally used for people to get in and out of the subway. 


Fixing this, as deMause reported, would likely require sealing all those gaps and using a vent shaft system like car tunnels use (not that roads and car infrastructure are any less vulnerable to climate change, as many of the region's highways are flooded and impassable today as well). The price tag for such a project would be well into the billions.

The second problem is the political failures that allowed this problem to fester unaddressed. As Columbia University climatologist Klaus Jacob told deMause:

"“It’s not that the MTA is sleeping,” says Jacob, who says authority engineers are ready to start tackling flooding problems the minute they’re made a funding priority. Rather, he says, “You should point more [of] a finger at the governor, the assembly, and the federal government, and say, ‘Help the MTA to do its job; they want to do it.’”

The governor at the time, of course, was Andrew Cuomo. And the federal government, despite being controlled by Democrats, the political party that ostensibly cares about the climate crisis, cannot be bothered to pass an infrastructure bill that actually helps with climate change in any meaningful way. The frank, depressing reality is Americans who look around at the current situation and demand action on the climate crisis have no reliable partners in government to turn to. Instead, we have a lot of phony allies who claim to care so they do not lose votes but preach a gospel of false faith in moderation and marginal change, rubbing their hands over price tags and cost estimates. Short-sighted ideas by old-timer politicians, always looking to the next election and running out of time to die before they live to see the consequences of their actions.

For all the talk of "resiliency" in New York City circles since Sandy, the city feels uneasily vulnerable. The nine years since Sandy have flown by and the city looks and feels basically the same, except muggier in the summer, because we're in a subtropical climate now. After some $5 billion in repairs, the MTA has gone from deploying plywood with tape around the subway grates to using slightly fancier storm covers that still have the fatal design flaw of needing hundreds if not thousands of humans to run around and deploy them. We are, in a phrase, only slightly less fucked than a decade ago.

The thing that would help most with subway flooding in the short term would be to have less water get to the stations to begin with. This can be done by ripping up as much asphalt as we can and replacing it with materials that actually absorb water like soil, dirt, and rain gardens. This sounds like a big project, but relative to all the other big climate projects, it's an easy one. It would have the added benefit of making the city more pleasant on the days after the storm like today. 

But the city—and the country in general—has no plans for anything like this, to rip up the harmful infrastructure today we built yesterday to make way for a more resilient one tomorrow. So the subways will continue to flood, the waters will continue to rise, and our elected leaders will continue to shout on social media about how unprepared we are for the reality we saw coming 20 years ago, lived through nine years ago, and experienced yesterday once again. If only there was something we could do. If only we could do it.