The South Ferry station sustained more flooding than any in the system
Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Lower Manhattan on the evening of October 29th, and by midnight, the floodwaters were gushing fast into the South Ferry subway terminal. With its train tracks 80 feet below grade, the station is one of the deepest in the New York City Transit (NYCT) system, as well as one of the newest since its 2009 opening. Its southernmost entrance faces New York Harbor and Whitehall Ferry Terminal -- where the plaza pooled with water five feet high -- and the combination of hurricane plus high tide proved to be an overpowering surge.
The morning after, transit engineers began the long recovery process that began by pumping out more than 14 million gallons of seawater from the 100-percent-submerged terminal, which alone took five days. They found sections of steel escalator grates a dozen feet away, shattered glass panels from the mezzanine laid across the tracks, and seaweed draped over overhead signs.
But such cosmetic or easily replaceable elements were of less concern than other areas. The new state-of-the-art dispatch office, the main relay room, the 24-7 pump room that keeps groundwater out of the subterranean terminal -- all were rendered beyond repair, including the computers, batteries, motors, and innumerable wires, cables, and switches.
South Ferry is one of the last stations to remain shuttered as a result of the superstorm. The engineers who maintain its infrastructure are now deep into the intricate task of cataloging the damage, and formulating the scope of rehabilitation work.
|Debris from New York Harbor floated into the 100-percent-submerged station
"What was brand new in 2009 is now rusted, corroded, and covered in saltwater residue," says NYCT Vice President and Chief Maintenance Officer for Subways Joseph Leader. He says that this station was hit the hardest of any of the 468 in the system.
On a recent South Ferry tour, Leader pointed out the standing-water line that still is clearly visible, about four feet above the mezzanine-level floor. Nearby, harbor debris and litter that floated in remains on the escalators, platform, and throughout the station.
The "damming" and sandbag walls that his team installed during the brief window of time between planning the system-wide shutdown and the storm's onset clearly were outmatched by the surge that reached 16 feet above mean high tide in just a few hours. It didn't help that a huge section of timber, which Leader suspects floated in from a local construction site or somewhere in the harbor, struck the temporary dam like a battering ram, breaching it for the duration of the storm.
"But the water would have found its way in anyway," says Leader.
In all, an astounding 40 million gallons of water were pumped from the eight East River subway tunnels. The R train's Montague Tube alone saw 27 million gallons and tons of debris removed from its 4,000-foot span. After more than a month of around-the-clock work, the tunnel reopened on December 21st, finally reconnecting that route between Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn.
Since South Ferry and the R train's Whitehall Street station are adjoining, floodwaters found their way down to both -- though the latter was the first to resume service, on December 3rd, after days of pumping and weeks of cleaning and equipment replacement.
Leader explains that while the 2009 South Ferry terminal was originally built at a cost of $527 million, its rehabilitation will likely cost at least that amount. Unlike the initial construction, which essentially meant building out an enormous empty box with all new elements, the recovery will mean removing virtually every single electrical and signal component -- including wiring, relays, track circuits, stop motors, ducts, telecommunications, and power feeds -- and reinstalling them anew. The saltwater corrosion and rust would simply compromise service either immediately, or in the months and years to come.
The 2009 terminal (which replaced the original 1905 "loop" station that required passengers to disembark only in the first four train cars), was built to a high engineering standard, one that would withstand a "hundred-year flood." That is, a flood so bad it occurs only once every hundred years. Hurricane Sandy was initially expected to arrive as a category-one, less-extreme storm. That was what Leader and his team prepared for.
However by the time Sandy arrived, it had greatly intensified and joined forces with the coastal nor'easter barreling down from the North Atlantic Ocean that same evening. Emergency preparations simply were no match for the storms power.
Today, as the transit team works on rebuilding South Ferry, they do so mindful of the best preventative measures for future extreme weather events.
"Part of the rehabilitation will be mitigating or preparing for a worse storm, rather than replacing in kind," said NYCT Chief Infrastructure Officer Frank Jezycki, who works closely with Leader in the rebuilding effort.
The engineers point out that the best policy is not to rebuild the station to keep future floodwaters out. That would only divert a surge and lead to flooding in other stations. Rather, the team is considering ways to renovate the station in anticipation of future flooding, and make its most valuable rooms and components as water-resistant as possible, potentially including watertight chambers, ducts, and materials.
NYCT officials are now taking the next steps on the way to reopening, and soon will issue a Request for Proposals that will likely span three bid elements: electrical replacement, pump-room restoration, and infrastructure and station-components rebuilding. Though they won't know until bids are in, it is possible that some of the same workers who built the first station may return for this recovery.
Reopening timing is still speculative, but engineers estimate it will take approximately six to 12 months. They will be able to be more exact only once the scope of work is finalized, bids are awarded, and contractors commit to detailed schedules.
In the meantime, the 1 train will continue to operate as far south as Rector Street, and continue to use the old South Ferry station and its loop to reverse direction. (The station itself is out of public service since it was decommissioned in 2009.)
What remains most important, however, is ensuring that the reconstructed South Ferry terminal returns to service not only as soon as possible -- but to a new standard, informed by the extreme damage Hurricane Sandy wrought.
Because if there is one thing this disaster taught New Yorkers, it is that the best emergency plan is to plan for emergencies.