Where This Meets That
One of the more interesting books I’ve read in the last few years is Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, in which Weisman ponders what the world would look like if mankind up and disappeared one day. His discussion about New York City in the opening chapters gives an eye-opening perspective to catastrophic secondary risks to the city’s foundation that hung in the balance following the 9/11 attacks, and I think some of the same concerns are renewed should Hurricane Sandy’s worst-case scenarios come true.
Meantime, just as the calm courage of post-9/11 New York gave us all an example to respect in times of crisis, I’m sure if anyone can “weather the ‘Frankenstorm'”, it’s New York. My heart and prayers go out to the people of this city and to all affected by the storm throughout the northeast.
Below is an excerpt from pages 24-25 of Weisman’s book to pique your curiosity.
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As it happens, that will be the key to breaching Manhattan’s hard shell if nature set about dismantling it. It would begin very quickly, with the first strike at the city’s most vulnerable spot: its underbelly.
New York City Transit’s Paul Schber and Peter Briffa, superintendent of Hydraulics and level one maintenance supervisor of Hydraulics Emergency Response, respectively, understand perfectly how this would work. Every day, they must keep 13 million gallons of water from overpowering New York’s subway tunnels.
“That’s just the water that’s already underground,” notes Schuber.
“When it rains, the amount is…” Briffa shows his palms, surrendering. “It’s incalculable.”
Maybe not actually incalculable, but it doesn’t rain any less now than before the city was built. Once, Manhattan was 27 square miles of porous ground interlaced with living roots that siphoned the 47.2 inches of average annual rainfall up trees and into meadow grasses, which drank their fill and exhaled the rest back into the atmosphere. Whatever the roots didn’t take settled into the island’s water table. In places, it surfaced in lakes and marshes, with the excess draining off to the ocean via those 40 streams – which now lie trapped beneath concrete and asphalt.
Today, because there’s little soil to absorb rainfall or vegetation to transpire it, and because buildings block sunlight from evaporating it, rain collects in puddles or follows gravity down sweepers, or it flows into subway vents, adding to the water already down there. Below 131st Street and Lenox Avenue, for example, a rising underground river is corroding the bottom of the A,B,C, and D subway lines. Constantly, men in reflective vests and denim rough-outs like Schuber’s and Briffa’s are clambering around beneath the city to deal with the fact that under New York, groundwater is always rising.
Whenever it rains hard, sewers clog with storm debris – the number of plastic garbage bags adrift in the world’s cities may truly exceed calculation – and the water, needing to go somewhere, plops down the nearest subway stairs. Add a nor’easter and the surging Atlantic Ocean bangs against New York’s water table until, in places like Water Street in lower Manhattan or Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, it backs up right into the tunnels, shutting everything down until it subsides. Should the ocean continue to warm and rise even faster than the current inch per decade, at some point it simply won’t subside. Schuber and Briffa have no idea what will happen then.
Add to all that the 1930s-vintage water mains that frequently burst, and the only thing that has kept New York from flooding already is the incessant vigilance of its subway crews and 753 pumps. Think about those pumps: New York’s subway system, an engineering marvel in 1903, was laid underneath an already-existing burgeoning city. As that city already had sewer lines, the only place for subways to go was below them. “So,” explains Schuber, “we have to pump uphill.” In this, New York is not alone: cities like London, Moscow, and Washington built their subways far deeper, often to double as bomb shelters. Therein lies much potential disaster.
Shading his eyes with his white hard hat, Schuber peers down into a square pit beneath the Van Siclen Avenue station in Brooklyn, where each minute 650 gallons of natural groundwater gush from the bedrock. Gesturing over the roaring cascade he indicates four submersible cast-iron pumps that take turns laboring against gravity to stay ahead. Such pumps run on electricity. When the power fails, things can get difficult very fast. Following the World Trade Center attack, an emergency pump train bearing a jumbo portable diesel generator pumped out 27 times the volume of Shea Stadium. Had the Hudson River actually burst through the PATH train tunnels that connect New York’s subways to New Jersey, as was greatly feared, the pump train – and possibly much of the city – would simply have been overwhelmed.
In an abandoned city, there would be no one like Paul Schuber and Peter Briffa to race from station to flooded station whenever more than two inches of rain falls – as happens lately with disturbing frequency – sometimes snaking hoses up stairways to pump to a sewer down the street, sometimes navigating these tunnels in inflatable boats. With no people, there would also be no power. The pumps will go off, and stay off. “When this pump facility shuts down,” says Schuber, “in half an hour water reaches a level where trains can’t pass anymore.”
Briffa removes his safety goggles and rubs his eyes. “A flood in one zone would push water into the others. Within 36 hours, the whole thing could fill.”
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Interesting to think about all this in light of the sheer volume of water that Hurricane Sandy has washed onto the city. Let us just hope the pumps keep pumping!