Good, modern infrastructure works—and outdated infrastructure doesn’t. That’s the lesson of the past few days, from New Orleans to New York. Federal and state governments have already invested tens of billions of dollars in severe-storm mitigation across the country, and the results are salutatory, if imperfect. We’re not going to have perfect infrastructure anytime soon, even with billions more in investment—so one inevitable adjustment to extreme weather is changing human behavior.
With New Orleans in the dark for nearly a week now, after Hurricane Ida smashed into it as a Category 4 storm Sunday night, it may sound counterintuitive to talk about the storm as an infrastructure success story. Yet it has been a success, at least in part: New Orleans’s post-Katrina levees, rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago with $13 billion from the Bush administration, held. This investment in public infrastructure has likely saved more than its cost in averting damage to private-sector assets, such as homes and businesses, from standing floodwaters. The power outage is a problem, yes—but that, too, is a matter of cost vs. benefit. With billions more in investment, likely paid by ratepayers, New Orleans’ power provider, Entergy, could put more transmission and distribution cables underground, just as New York did long ago.
In New York, meantime, Ida’s remnants dumped a record 7.2 inches of rain, breaking hourly records set just last week. New Yorkers saw the results: highways and streets flooded out, subways turned into waterfalls, and basements inundated, causing the deaths of at least 11 New Yorkers. (Any property owners who cut up their houses into illegal apartments without adequate exits should be prosecuted).
Just as in pre-Katrina New Orleans, much of the problem is outdated infrastructure. As city councilman Justin Brannan, who represents low-lying parts of Brooklyn, noted, “your basement flooded last night because the city’s sewers couldn’t handle the storm. The sewers didn’t fail. They worked exactly as they were designed to. The problem is they were designed 100 years ago,” for far less hourly rainfall.
Inadequate drainage relative to extreme storms explains the travails of the subway system as well. After Hurricane Sandy flooded eight tunnels with saltwater in 2012, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved $5.8 billion in spending to protect subway, car, and commuter-rail tunnels, as well as subway stations, against storms. The MTA has either completed or is in the middle of $3 billion in such project work, from installing steel gates to major tunnels to raising seawalls around ventilation structures. Despite Twitter lamentations about Congress’s failure to pass the Green New Deal, the MTA hasn’t lacked for financial resources to do this work.
However, as the MTA’s acting chief Janno Lieber said Thursday, much of this work is to protect underwater or near-water infrastructure from coastal seawater flooding—not to prevent shallow subway entrances from flash flooding coming from the streets. “The subway is not a submarine,” Lieber said. That is to say: stations are near the street surface and, by definition, need to be open to the street. When water flows down the street, it flows into the subway. The MTA has raised some street grates so that water moves around them, not into them; but the authority must also get faster in cleaning clogged drains.
None of this is a substitute for streets that drain properly. “What we don’t have is enough resiliency in our city streets, drainage systems capable of handling that volume of water,” Lieber said. When torrents of water come down a major avenue at the rate of multiple inches an hour (or even less), some of that gets into the subway, and from there, the MTA must pump much of it out. Lieber says that the MTA will “reassess the subways’ capability.” For one thing, New York can spend more on its drainage capacity, including relatively cheap measures, such as converting paved parking spots into tree- and grass-planted spots to catch flash-flood runoff.
We also need to understand that even significantly upgraded infrastructure won’t work 100 percent of the time. Whether it’s the city, state, or MTA, New York must be more proactive about shutting down some systems earlier. Government officials know that many highways and boulevards cannot withstand multiple inches of rainfall without flooding; similarly, the MTA knows that much of the subway system cannot withstand such inundation. The city must think about shutting major highways a few hours before a flash flood starts, and the MTA must consider shutting down the subway in a similar fashion before people get stranded on trains or are standing waist-deep in stations, and keeping buses off roads before passengers start standing on bus seats to avoid floodwaters. Former governor Andrew Cuomo understood this, taking steps to shut the subway down ahead of a forecasted blizzard in 2015. That blizzard didn’t happen, so the press castigated him.
Good drainage and pumping are effective, but they do not work instantaneously to remove deluges of water. And that’s where realism comes in, again: as southerners have long known about storms like Ida, and as most northerners understand about blizzards, part of adapting to storms is just staying home and waiting.
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