U.S. Water News Online
NEW YORK -- A torrential downpour sent water surging
through New York's subway system and highway tunnels and across
airport runways, leaving thousands of commuters stranded and one big
question -- How could 3 inches of rain bring the largest U.S. mass
transit system to a halt?
The storm, which also spawned a tornado, hit just before dawn. By
rush hour, the subway system was virtually paralyzed when pumping
stations became overwhelmed. Bedlam resulted from too much rain, too
fast -- some suburban commuters spent a half day just getting to
"One big rain and it all falls apart," said Ruby Russel, 64, as
she sat waiting on a train in Brooklyn. She had been trying to get to
Manhattan for three hours.
The failure renewed a debate about whether the network of pumps,
sewers and drains that protects the city's subways from flooding
needs an overhaul. Every line experienced some sort of delay as track
beds turned into streams gurgling with millions of gallons of
rainwater. The washout was the third time in seven months that the
subways were disrupted by rain.
Metropolitan Transit Authority engineers were asked to report back
to Gov. Eliot Spitzer within 30 days with suggestions about how to
deal with the chronic flooding.
"We have a design issue that we need to think about," Spitzer
The National Weather Service said a tropical air mass dumped an
extraordinary amount of rain in a short period of time. The worst was
recorded between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m., with 2.5 inches falling on
Central Park and almost 3.5 inches on Kennedy International Airport.
The stormwater sought the low ground, and that meant the subways.
Water poured in through vents, drowned the signal system and flooded
the third rail, forcing a shutoff of power on some lines.
MTA Executive Director Elliot G. Sander said the intensity of the
rain was simply overwhelming. The subway's drainage system can
generally handle a maximum of 1.5 inches of rainfall per hour.
"The timing and intensity of the storm took us by surprise,"
The subway problems come as weather experts predict New York is
due for a major hurricane. A storm with 130 mph winds and a 30-foot
storm surge could cause the Hudson and East rivers to overflow -- and
bring with it more significant flooding than a severe rainstorm.
Public officials called for improvements in the drainage system
after a similar rain-related shutdown in 1999, and the MTA made some
changes after another round of paralyzing tunnel floods in 2004, when
the remnants of Hurricane Frances washed out the subways for hours.
Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Emily Lloyd
said the city is spending $300 million per year upgrading its piping
systems and has been gradually building a more robust stormwater
drainage system to replace the old combined sewers that handled
wastewater and rain.
In Manhattan, Times Square was one huge mess, packed with many of
the 4 million riders who rely on the subway system daily. Thousands
waited for hours for any means of transportation, jostling one
another to get on the few buses that arrived.
The storms also created problems for the region's airports, where
delays of up to an hour were reported. The National Weather Service
said a tornado touched down in Brooklyn, where winds downed trees,
tore off rooftops and wrapped signs around posts. At least 40 homes
Tornadoes have hit New York City before, but not often. The
National Weather Service had records of at least five, plus sketchy
detail on the last reported tornado sighting in Brooklyn, in 1889.
None was as strong as this recent twister, which had winds as high as
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime event," said Jeffrey Tongue, a Weather
A woman on Staten Island died when a car got stuck in an underpass
and another car came along and hit hers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg
said. A handful of people were injured, Bloomberg said.
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