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NYC’s subways have a built-in tool for preventing floods. Where was it last week?

A $40 million system can keep the subways from flooding—but in only one type of flood.

NYC’s subways have a built-in tool for preventing floods. Where was it last week?
[Photo: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images]
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After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and flooded its subway system in 2012, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) knew it needed to act. The storm caused an estimated $5 billion in damage, mostly from water getting in where it shouldn’t have.

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“Track, rails, signal cables, escalators—every piece of equipment that operates in the New York subway system was affected in some way,” says Robert Laga, deputy business lead for the MTA’s Construction and Development department.

Flooding after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 [Photo: Leonard Wiggins/MTA/Flickr]
With a changing climate and extreme weather events on the rise, this type of flooding is expected to become more common. Preventing it from inundating the subway system has become a new priority, and a novel flood prevention system now in place could be part of making sure Hurricane Sandy-level damage doesn’t occur again.

Floodgates have been installed in 68 low-lying subway and PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) stations in Lower Manhattan. Housed at the street level above the stairwells that lead down into the stations, the floodgates are made of a Kevlar-based fabric that can be rolled out horizontally ahead of flood events to create a kind of lid over the openings.

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[Photo: courtesy ILC Dover]
But the system is not designed for every type of flood threat, as deadly flooding during last week’s Hurricane Ida made evident.

The flooding from that event came mostly from the sheer amount of rainwater that overwhelmed the stormwater system, with more than 3 inches falling in a single hour. Though Hurricane Sandy wasn’t as strong as Ida, the flooding was more intense because it overlapped with a high tide, causing a storm surge to flow from the Atlantic into the subway tunnels and underground stations. Both events are rare, but the overlap of a storm and a lunar-influenced high tide is more easily and reliably forecast. So when it comes to preventing floods from taking down the subway system, the MTA is planning around future Sandys rather than future Idas.

[Photo: courtesy ILC Dover]
The system, the Flex-Gate Stairwell, was developed by ILC Dover, a Delaware-based company known for producing the spacesuits worn by NASA astronauts. Through its connections with the Department of Homeland Security, ILC Dover was contacted by the MTA after Hurricane Sandy. With federal flood protection funding in hand, the transportation agency wanted the devastation of 2012 to be a one-time occurrence.

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[Photo: courtesy ILC Dover]
“They came with a set of interesting requirements,” says Fran DiNuzzo, president and CEO of ILC Dover, noting that the ideal flood prevention system would be able to hold back 16 feet of water, be stored on-site, and be easily deployable and removable. “So they were looking for a unicorn,” DiNuzzo says.

[Image: courtesy ILC Dover]

“We essentially came up with a system that I’ll loosely call a very high-tech window shade,” he adds. The Flex-Gate system involves a combination of tarp-like sheets of coated Kevlar and a restraining web of Kevlar that can withstand thousands of pounds of tension. With a simple crank, a worker can roll the gate out of its storage compartment along tracks on each side of the stairwell and latch it at the surface level, turning the gaping hole of a subway entrance into a waterproof seal. In tests, the system has been able to withstand 16 feet of water.

“It’s a significant investment in the subway system,” says Laga, adding that the cost to install the systems at each station ranged from $600,000 to $750,000, adding up to more than $40 million.  Though the Flex-Gate product can be used during flash flood events, Laga stresses that the MTA’s installation is not being used to prevent damage from flash flooding, which is harder to predict and faster to inundate the system compared to a tidal surge. By monitoring forecasts and tides, Laga says, MTA officials can decide within hours whether the Flex-Gate system should be activated. Though there have been a few close calls, Laga says the system has yet to be deployed.

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Though the MTA is ready for the next storm surge, the flash flooding of last week’s Hurricane Ida underscores the challenge facing transit agencies like those in New York and Zhengzhou, China, where 12 people died recently when heavy rainfall flooded subway tunnels. Some extreme weather events can be predicted and planned for, but others can catch people and infrastructure systems by deadly surprise.

The new Flex-Gate systems are a recognition that cities need to do more to prevent such devastation, but the MTA’s Laga concedes that protecting the subway system is a moving target. “When they built the subway system years ago, there was no such thing as global warming or sea level rise,” he says. “Now there is.”