New York – When the remnants of Hurricane Ida poured record-breaking rain on the East Coast this month, stairs in New York City’s subway tunnels turned into waterfalls and train tracks became canals.
In Philadelphia, a commuter line swept miles along the Schuylkill River, and the nation’s busiest rail line, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor running from Boston to Washington, was closed for the day.
Nearly a decade after Superstorm Sandy invested billions of dollars in coastal flood protection up and down the East Coast—some of which remains unfinished—Hurricane Ida and other storms this summer provided a clear reminder that more needs to be done. The need is – and early – as climate change brings stronger, more unpredictable weather to a region with some of the country’s oldest and busiest transit systems, say transit experts and officials.
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“This is our moment to make sure our transit system is ready,” said Sanjay Seth, Boston’s “climate resilience” program manager. “There’s a lot we need to do in the next 10 years, and we have to do it right. There’s no need to make it twice.”
In New York, where about 75 million gallons (285 million liters) of water were pumped out of the subway during Ida, ambitious solutions have been floated, such as building canals through the city.
But relatively easy, short-term improvements to the transit system can also be made in the meantime, suggests Jano Lieber, acting CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
For example, putting curbs at subway entrances could prevent water from running down tunnels, as seen in countless viral videos this summer.
More than 400 metro entrances could be affected by extreme rainfall from climate change in the coming decades, according to estimates from the Regional Planning Association, a think tank that plans to put forward the idea of a canal system.
“The subway system is not a submarine. It cannot be made impervious to water,” Lieber said. “We just need to limit how quickly it can get into the system.”
In Boston, climate change efforts have focused primarily on the Blue Line, which runs beneath Boston Harbor and straddles the shoreline north of the city.
This summer’s storm was the first real test of some of the latest measures to buffer the weak line.
Flood barriers at a major downtown waterfront stop were first activated when Tropical Storm Henry made landfall in New England in August. No major damage has been reported at the station.
Officials are seeking federal funding to build a seawall to prevent flooding at another important Blue Line subway stop, says Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. He said the agency has also budgeted for upgrading harbor tunnel pumps and is building a berm around the vast swamp that runs along the Blue Line.
In Philadelphia, some flood protection measures completed in the wake of Superstorm Sandy proved their worth this summer, while others fell short.
Bob Lund, deputy general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, said the signal huts, which house critical control equipment, were lifted after Sandy along the hard-hit Manayunk/Norristown commuter line, but to avoid damage during Ida. That was not enough.
On the bright side, efforts to “armor” the shoreline prevented damaging erosion in the region’s worst flooding since the mid-1800s. Lund said there are plans to continue armouring more sections along the river with cable-reinforced concrete blocks.
If anything, he said, this year’s storms showed that flood projections have not kept pace with environmental change.
“We are seeing more frequent storm surge and higher water level events,” Lund said. “We have to be even more conservative than our estimates.”
In Washington, where the Red Line’s flood-prone Cleveland Park station was closed twice during Hurricane Ida, transit officials have begun developing a climate resilience plan to identify vulnerabilities and prioritize investments, Sherri Lee, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said.
He said WMATA has worked over the past two decades to reduce the risk of flooding, such as expanding ventilation shafts, upgrading drainage systems and installing dozens of high-capacity pumping stations.
On balance, the East Coast transit system has made commendable strides like sketching climate change plans and hiring experts, said Jesse Keenan, an associate professor at Tulane University in New Orleans who worked with Boston’s T.
But it is an open question whether they are planning ambitiously enough, he said, pointing to Washington, where subway lines along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers in Maryland and Virginia are particularly vulnerable.
Similar concerns remain in other global cities, which have experienced severe flooding this year.
In China, Premier Li Keqiang has promised to hold authorities accountable after a flooded subway line in Zhengzhou in July killed 14 and trapped hundreds of others. But there is no concrete proposal yet for what can be done to prevent the deadly metro flooding.
In London, efforts to address Victorian-era sewer and drainage systems have done little to make a dent in city-wide conflicts with flooding, says climate change expert Bob Ward of the London School of Economics.
The city witnessed monsoon-like wetness in July, leading to the closure of tube stations.
“The level of need is not what is needed,” Ward said. “We know that these rain events will get worse, and the flooding will get worse, unless we make a significant increase in investment.”
Meanwhile, other cities have moved more quickly to strengthen their infrastructure.
Tokyo completed an underground system to divert flood waters back in 2006, with enough chambers to fit a spacecraft or the Statue of Liberty.
Copenhagen’s underground city circle line, which was completed in 2019, features massive flood gates, raised entryways and other climate change adaptations.
How to pay for more ambitious climate change projects remains another major question mark for East Coast cities, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Michael Martello, who co-authored the Boston study with Keenan.
Despite the infusion of federal stimulus dollars during the pandemic, Boston’s T and other transit agencies still face budget shortfalls because ridership has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Stunning images of flooding this summer briefly spurred efforts to pass President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan. But that huge spending bill, which includes funding for climate change preparedness, is still under negotiation in Congress.
“It’s great to have these plans,” Martello said. “But somehow have to build and get funded.”
Marcelo reported from Boston. Associated Press journalist Dek Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.