Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

10.30.12

How Long Until New York Gets Back Up and Running?

New York's mighty infrastructure has taken a mighty blow. How hard will it be to fix?

I was born and bred in New York, and I've been closely following the reports about how long it might take to get all the systems back up and running.  But many seemed contradictory, or confusing, so I asked my Dad.  Dad worked for several NYC mayoral administrtions, ending up as the EPA commissioner under  Ed Koch.  He then spent more than 20 years heading the trade association for the local contractors who build and maintain the area's roads, tunnels and bridges, so as you can imagine, he's spent a lot of time thinking about New York's infrastructure.  Now retired to Boston, Dad has also been following the news with great interest.  With typical Dad thoroughness, he sent me an extensive response to my query:

The problems most directly affect the Manhattan economy, because that is where the biggest impacts of the storm have been felt.  But the entire region will feel the impact if the issues are not resolved quickly.

Let's dispose of the most intact system first: the water and wastewater programs.  They seem to have suffered the least damage to this point, although there is probably some build up of sand and debris in the storm and combined sewers that will need to be removed in the near future, in part to get ready for the winter. The City will have to manage their upstate reservoirs to help with flood control and have already started to do so.

The electricity grid is the first system that needs to be dealt with, as there are simply no medium-term or long-term alternatives for the provision of power to the Manhattan economy. At this point there are substantial outages reported throughout Manhattan south of 39th street.  The power is entirely off south of 29th street (with the exception of Battery Park City).There are also reports that there was at least one substation explosion in the Greenwich Village area.

The biggest challenge facing all the city’s infrastructure operators is the effect of the saltwater.  Con Ed will have to deal with widespread intrusions into the duct banks and transformers that lie below the city streets.  Entire distribution loops will have to be dried out, inspected and tested to insure that there are no major line breaks that will arc over when power is restored.  The restoration of power should be a very organized and serial process, working outwards from the generating stations and major substations. 

The biggest unknown is simply that Con Ed hasn’t a great deal of experience in dealing with large areas of system salt-water intrusion.  Even if Con Ed has a protocol for testing and inspection and restoration, crews will have to be prepped and field trained to do this kind of careful work. The good news is that the experience of 9/11 has given Con Ed solid experience in rerouting systems, bypassing substations and laying cable on City curb lines to get service back to their customers. It may be faster in some circumstances to lay that temporary cable, such as in connection with the Stock Exchanges, while the more intense inspections are undertaken.

Con Ed has another challenge that can be equally critical as the weather gets colder: the operation of the steam system in Manhattan below 42nd street.   New York City has an extensive network of steam tunnels which provide heat to many midtown and downtown buildings, until it gets up, residents and workers in those buildings can expect to be rather chilly.

The steam system is fed for the East Side out of the plant at 14th Street and the East River, and this plant was affected early by East River flooding. One hopes that there are no problems in getting the steam system up and running, as there are many office and residential buildings that simply cannot be occupied without it.

The mass transit systems present the next challenges, for both the internal transportation within New York City and to/from New Jersey. The PATH system is once again flooded with seawater and closed. All of the seven subway tunnels under the East River are or have been under water. And commuter rail systems have been impacted, with Metro North losing power on both the New Haven and Hudson divisions and the Long Island Rail Road having had water intrusion into one of the two tunnels that run east from Penn Station. New Jersey Transit has also been affected, with major stations and termini along the coast flooded and unusable.

Once again the challenges involve both the development of restoration protocols and the development of the personnel to implement the protocols fully. Each of the major transit agencies has faced the issue of salt-water intrusion in the past, with New York City Transit experiencing major seawater flooding twenty years ago. But never has the Transit Authority experienced such flooding over such a wide area. Even its major service yard at Coney Island has been flooded out.  The inspection process can only begin after the tunnels are pumped out, a task that has been a challenge in the past. While every tunnel has its own pump system, inlets will have to be monitored and cleaned and teams available to make any needed repairs.

The inspections will have to be extensive, both on the structural aspects of the infrastructure (track bed, tunnel segments, etc) and on the power and signal systems. As with Con Ed, it will be paramount to inspect and dry out all of the powered systems to insure that there is no arcing over when the power is restored. In the short run, the extent of the damage will require the quick qualification of people to perform the inspections and identify the repairs needed for the signal and power maintainers who do that work.

Obviously none of this work will go quickly, and we can be looking at several days before the system is restored fully. Even if there are short-term work arounds, the salt will have to be washed off every metal surface to avoid any long-term destructive impacts from electrolysis.

There are alternatives to the subways to feed the people needed by the Manhattan economy, but none will work easily and each alternative used  will require careful organization. In some circumstances the TA may operate its elevated lines in Queens and Brooklyn to points close to the East River, allowing people then to walk or be shuttled across the bridges into Manhattan. But that will serve only a small portion of the workforce. More likely intense bus operations from the outer boroughs, the equivalent of expanded express bus service, and within Manhattan will be required to meet the needs. The use of private automobiles will be severely restricted, as it was after 9/11.

Even with the electrical grid and the mass transit systems effectively managed, the City managers will face challenges with other systems. The Amtrak tunnels connecting to New Jersey from Penn Station are very vulnerable and need to be thoroughly inspected and serviced.  As one often experiences, Amtrak seems to hate to talk to its customers and the most recent press release on its website is from last Friday. (UPDATE:  They do have a release on their website, cunningly hidden two clicks away behind a small-font alert that's easy to miss.  For some reason, they did not put it under the news section.)

The telecommunications industries will also be challenged to inspect and manage any adverse salt-water intrusion into their low-voltage systems in Manhattan.. But the cable systems of Time Warner seem to be functioning well, which may be a metaphor for the industry.

There will be great pressure to get everything back up and running as quickly as possible. But it’s at least as important to restore services for the long term, so that there are no further outages that will affect the long term. In this regard the Transit Authority faces particular challenges. It knows that it cannot get spare parts for its power and signal systems at the local Home Depot. As they found out when a fire damaged interlockings on the IND system, the units that manage remote switch operations, it can be years before repairs can be fully implemented. Care must be taken.