The Reasons Behind Flooding in New York City – and Potential Solutions

New York City has experienced an unusual surge of flooding in their subways. In addition to catastrophic flooding, several residents were also in danger because, as NBC News reported, “the worst time to be in a closed down train car is during rush hour when temperatures can rise more than 20 degrees above outside temps.”

Overall, flooding affected seven subway stations and stopped trains from running for over 24 hours, causing transportation issues for over 650,000 people. In order to prevent disastrous flooding occurrences like those recently experienced by New York City, we need to first understand why they occur.

What caused the flooding in NYC subways?

  1. A lack of maintenance and allocation of funding

    Many subway stations are over 100 years old. And, as you can imagine, they have not always been well taken care of over the many years since they were built, largely due to budget constraints and certainly not from lack of a desire to keep things running beautifully. It was reported by NBC News that “The MTA has a $32 billion capital plan for updating its system.”However, at present, there is very little maintenance being done to the existing infrastructure of the city’s transportation system. A mixture of outdated infrastructure, lack of funding from the federal government, and the worsening effects of climate change made for the perfect storm to cause severe flooding affecting residents’ health and lifestyles. Additionally, lightning strikes in the area only caused further damage to the crumbling infrastructure.
  2. The current flood protection system is not enough

    In an effort to prevent flooding, MTA workers often turn valves off across stations and pump water out from track beds with a fleet of industrial vacuum cleaners. When all else fails, they typically use sandbags which help block the flow of outside rain and stormwater from entering open entrances into subway tunnels. Recently, during the time that these subway trains experienced flooding, pumping systems installed to move rainwater further away from train platforms located near rivers were not effective enough to prevent the floods.These pumps need maintenance themselves as several recent reports show that they have broken down since last year due to their age.
  3. Lack of drainage tunnels

    The New York City subway system was originally constructed over a century ago, so it wasn’t built with the technology we have today, i.e., underground drainage tunnels to move excess water out of the system and prevent flooding. The lack of drainage tunnels is especially dangerous because most have openings that are located above ground and vulnerable to weather conditions such as “lightning-induced power surges in the third rail,” which can cause great harm or even death to anyone near them.
  4. Leaky tunnels

    Pictures of the NYC subway system leaking at many different locations continue to pop up on social media. This issue has already caused previous shutdowns and train delays.In addition to these potential flooding issues, it can also be a nuisance in the everyday life of an NYC resident. Because these leaks cause flooding inside the train tracks themselves, there is no other choice but to shut down service until they fix the leak.

What are the potential solutions?

Although the extensive damage done by flooding in NYC subways already occurred, we can learn from our mistakes and correct them in the future before it happens again. We need to start addressing our problems now if we want to prevent them in the future – and save lives along the way.

  1. Increase maintenance on existing infrastructure

    When we take preventive measures and mitigate risks before they pose a tangible threat, we can save money, time, and effort and also avoid unnecessary community health risks with severe implications.

    Carrying out routine maintenance of existing infrastructure within the subway system and across the city’s sewer systems is crucial to preventing another catastrophic event like the one New York City recently saw, especially as the effects of climate change continue to threaten our communities.

    Sometimes it’s hard for citizens to see the value in increased infrastructure spend for maintenance to keep things working when they already work….but it saves so much money in the long run and mitigates disaster along the way.

  2. Invest in smart diagnostics beyond just strategic spot checks

    Were better equipment available to help detect leaks before they happened, New York could have potentially prevented the unprecedented flooding in its subways. We recognize that it’s crucial to detect areas for potential leaks and other flood risks before they happen.

    Smart monitoring allows cities like NYC to address the issue proactively and prevent ongoing disruptions. This saves municipalities significant amounts of time and money and allows city planning officials to build resilient and sustainable communities–all while protecting citizens’ health, life and property.

  3. We recently completed an analysis where our team identified the relationship between sewer backups and different geographic and demographic factors in New York City. Learn more here.

    With the right insights from analytics tools like those that StormSensor and other innovative smart city solutions, we can better equip and enable our cities to make decisions that will protect citizens from the dangers of flooding. If you’re interested in learning more, get in touch with us here.

About the author

Erin Rothman

Talk stormwater with With more than 15 years of environmental consulting experience, Erin observed so many opportunities for innovation in the stormwater industry. With those in mind, she founded StormSensor to enthusiastically embrace new technology to help solve the problems of an age-old industry.