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New York Still Pumping Water Out Of Subway System


Here are some statistics from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. By November 1st, Hurricane Sandy had poured some 600 million gallons of water into the train and auto tunnels of New York. The corps' pumps can expel 696,000 gallons of water per minute. To a lot of us, this sounds like a set-up for an algebra problem, but for the Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, these have been the measure of real life for the past nearly two weeks.

How are they doing? Well, joining us now to talk about that, first, are Lieutenant Colonel Michael Clancy, who's deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: And George Kern, who's director of Bridge and Tunnel Operations for the New York City Department of Transportation, which oversees six tunnels and 25 movable bridges across the city. Welcome to the program, Mr. Kern.

GEORGE KERN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first for both of you, can we infer from the fact that you both have time to go to our New York bureau and talk about this that the job is successful and perhaps even nearly complete?

CLANCY: On behalf of the Corps of Engineers, yeah, we're approaching completion. We started with about a dozen projects. We are down to one big tube, which is the south tube of the PATH train between the World Trade Center and Jersey City. It's the last one we are actively pumping today. We still have some close out work and get our equipment over there and some of them still have pumps on them, like George's tunnel. He will still be pumping. They pump every day.

So the Corps of Engineers, we really just jumped in to help the owners, someone owns every one of the tunnels we've been pumping. They could have done it on their own, you know, had we not shown up. But we just brought in larger capabilities to make it go quicker. It's been a rough, long 10 days or so but we are down to one last tunnel that we think will be done hopefully in the next day or two if all goes well.

SIEGEL: George Kern, when Lieutenant Colonel Clancy speaks about George's tunnel, which one is he talking about?

KERN: The Battery Park underpass. It's pretty much a short exchange from the West Side to the East Side to a major thoroughfare, which leads to the FDR Drive leading uptown.

SIEGEL: And that's your last major piece of work to pump out?

KERN: Yes. At this time, the tunnel is completely dry. The only thing is the sump pit that are located within that tube were all drained to sump pits which are identical to one another. Sumping operations completely offline. We will restore electrical and mechanical and other various components.

SIEGEL: Lieutenant Colonel Clancy, from your standpoint, what was the most surprisingly challenging bit of pumping that you had to do to un-water New York?

CLANCY: I think that's a hard question, Robert. Every tunnel was unique in its own way. Every tunnel has unique characteristics. The most challenging, it's our last one, as I said, the PATH train, still working on that. The Brooklyn Battery tunnel, it's the longest automobile tunnel in North America, almost two miles long. So that was incredible. If you can picture putting a pump in the middle of a two-mile tunnel and then you got to run a hose for a mile out to get the water out of the tunnel. So every tunnel's been challenging, but it's been - it's actually been a lot of fun as an engineer to tackle each one of these technical challenges and also get to meet the engineers.

We just showed up, Army Corp of Engineers, we're here to help, but I got to meet guys like George. You know, I don't think we found a tunnel where they weren't already working when we showed up, we just brought in - like George said, we brought in larger pumps, more equipment to help make it go faster.

SIEGEL: Flashing forward a bit, Lieutenant Colonel Clancy, where is all that water now and how contaminated, if at all, was all that water that was down in the tunnels for a while?

CLANCY: You know, Robert, it's actually surprisingly clean because most of the tunnels were evacuated and most of the water we pumped right back to where it came from into New York Harbor. It was really - just depending upon where we had access to either the sewer system or the harbor. But we also didn't want to overwhelm the city's sewer system with water that didn't really need to be treated 'cause it really wasn't that dirty.

But we didn't take hard samples, but we took eyeball samples of everything we pumped and there was concern at first, but once we got going, really the water was pretty clean and we were comfortable putting it back into the harbor.

SIEGEL: Mr. Kern, what about the structural damage to the tunnels? That is, now that the water's out, are there problems that might force repairs and force closures just to get - to make sure there is no lasting damage from Sandy?

KERN: Well, structurally, it's very sound, the structure itself. But all the vital components of - all the electrical and mechanical components are completely destroyed. They're inundated with water. Not just water, but you're dealing with large volumes of salt water. Salt and electricity are just not agreeable to one another. We pretty much lost our ventilation system, pumping system, lighting system, CO system, security and fire systems.

They're all completely destroyed and there's really nothing that we can do to actually get the tunnel up, operating at this moment.

SIEGEL: You mean it's dry, but you just can't use it, is what you're saying.

KERN: Yes. It's completely dry and it's fully accessible, you know, throughout the full length of the tube itself.

SIEGEL: Well, both of you, having experienced all of this, what would you say the city could possibly do to avoid similar flooding or is it just inevitable if New York City moves so many people by tunnel, whether by cars or trains, a huge storm is going to do this? And first of all, Lieutenant Colonel Clancy, what would you say?

CLANCY: I think it's going to have to be a variety of things. You know, I was at the South Ferry subway station the night of the hurricane at high tide and the MTA had boarded it off and put sandbags and it was about three foot high on the water side and it was bone dry on the other side of those sandbags. So that was a temporary fix, but something maybe a little bit more permanent than that, a little gate we could put on every tunnel.

We could do something much smaller on a local basis for the lower parts of the city that I think could prevent most of the damage that we experienced last week.

SIEGEL: And George Kern, do you think of things that the city could or must do if another storm like this might be out there?

KERN: When you're talking about trying to protect the tunnel, what our vision is later or down the road is probably making everything that's underground more water tight, more suitable that, you know, it would not be damaged or, you know, really protect our electrical and mechanical equipment. Water protecting it in some fashion, where water cannot seep into any of the operating components.

I think that would be the safe way to go. I mean, you're not going to eliminate anything that we utilize underground in New York City. It's vital to our livelihood. It's vital to our function, how we get around each and every day.

SIEGEL: Well, George Kern, director of bridge and tunnel operations for the New York City Department of Transportation and Lieutenant Colonel Michael Clancy of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers New York District, thanks to both of you for talking with us and thanks for all your work.

CLANCY: Thank you, Robert.

KERN: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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