On the same day that a raging rainstorm soaked the city and crippled service on half the lines in the subway, a top state official quietly issued a damning audit, highly critical of the MTA’s readiness for future storms.
The 39-page “Risk Assessment and Implementation of Measures to Address Extreme Weather Conditions” report published Friday by the office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli rapped the MTA for a lack of preparedness on several fronts, saying the transit agency is years behind where it should be.
“To date, the MTA has not implemented one of the most important recommendations of the 2009 Blue Ribbon Commission’s Report — the development of the climate change adaptation master plan,” the report reads.
It states that the transit agency has run into delays on various projects designed to strengthen the system — and missed the mark on coming up with an overall resiliency plan by 2015, as the commission had called for six years earlier.
The report notes that the transit agency has done nearly $8 billion of federally funded resiliency work after Superstorm Sandy clobbered the transit system in 2012, causing billions of dollars of damage to tunnels, train yards, stations and other critical equipment. But it says the MTA’s climate action plan is not expected to be published until later this year, nearly a decade after it was due.
It doesn’t even seem to be on transit officials’ minds, according to the comptroller’s office.
“Despite all the time and resources that have been put into this Plan, none of the MTA officials we interviewed mentioned it,” DiNapoli’s report says.
The audit added that work needed to make six critical stations watertight and flood-resistant has been completed on just two of them — and that a project to keep flood water from entering 14 fan plants is also incomplete.
“While [New York City Transit] has developed winter, hurricane, rain and extreme heat plans, we found that these plans were inconsistently activated, with no documentation explaining the rationale for decision-making,” the report says.
The state comptroller’s audit was posted Friday afternoon, a spokesperson said. That was hours after flash flooding pounded the city and sent millions of gallons of rainwater cascading into underground stations during a storm that Gov. Kathy Hochul described as “Mother Nature at her most powerful.”
“This was the kind of rain that was once unimaginable — we called them once-in-a- century storms,” Hochul said Saturday. “But this is the third time since I was sworn in two years ago I’ve had a once-in-a-century storm.”
The Friday morning flash flood caused full or partial suspension of service on half the lines in the system, with MTA officials saying full service was restored by 8:30 p.m after 20 million gallons of water were pumped out of the subway.
MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said Monday that damage from the subway soaking is still being assessed, but estimated to be in the “millions of dollars.”
“When you get that volume, that inundation, the problem is the city sewer system is only configured for about an inch and three quarters in an hour,” Lieber said during a “Good Day New York” appearance on Fox 5. “And we got, in many cases, two and a half inches — so gravity is going to do its thing.
“The water that can’t be pushed into the city sewer system is gonna go somewhere, tends to go to the subways.”
The downpour left commuters who went into work that day scrambling for other options.
“Folks were like, ‘How am I going to get home?’” said Miranda Walker, who works for a construction development company on the Upper East Side.
Walker told THE CITY she took two subway lines and two bus routes to get home to The Bronx, completing in just under three hours a trip that usually takes her 45 minutes.
“That was the nightmare on Elm Street for me,” she said, “It was crazy.”
A Cash Flow Problem?
Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at the Climate School at Columbia University who for years prior to Superstorm Sandy warned of the subway’s vulnerability to flooding, told THE CITY Monday that billions more in fixes are needed to protect stations and infrastructure.
“It seems there is not enough money to address a problem of this magnitude,” said Jacob, who has worked at the school’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory for more than half a century.
Any fixes, he added, will require massive investment from the city to its drainage system.
“They’re all waiting for the other to make the first step,” Jacob said. “It’s a vicious circle and if there is no comprehensive solution between the city and the state and the MTA, this situation will go on and the economic losses are tremendous.”
At a Saturday briefing alongside Hochul, Lieber said the MTA took pre-storm measures to cover grates, along with other measures that “minimized” the damage when compared with the subway flooding that followed Hurricane Ida in September 2021. He added Monday that the transit agency has been working with the city to clear catch basins and keep water out of stations.
“So we’re getting better and better at preparation,” Lieber said.
The latest big storm to inflict damage on the subway system came days before the MTA is expected to release its next 20-Year Needs Assessment, a document outlining the transit agency’s long-term needs and priorities from 2025 to 2044.
Rachael Fauss, a senior policy advisor with Reinvent Albany, said resilience against extreme weather will need to be a central part of that document because, “this isn’t a once-in-100-years flooding anymore — this is a constant problem.”
“A perfectly functioning system is completely unusable during a big storm if there is no attention to managing all the water,” she told THE CITY. “That has to be an important part of their plan.”
Jacob said subway flooding will remain a problem for the transit system without “major capital funding” to address climate change.
“This will continue with every heavy rainfall,” he said.