Hurricane Sandy Update: Saltwater in Flooded Subways Could Cripple System ‘For A Year Or More’ According To Study

By iScienceTimes Staff on October 29, 2012 11:32 AM EDT

Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy flooding is already worse than Hurricane Irene (Photo: NOAA)

Hurricane Sandy is already pounding the coasts of New York and New Jersey with gale force winds, torrential rain and an enormous storm surge. The storm surge is of particular concern to emergency management officials due to one of the most basic compounds on Earth: salt.

Forecasters are predicting that an 11-foot wall of water could breach the battery designed to keep the sea out of the city. Lower Manhattan, home to Wall St. and one of the most important financial centers in the world, is wired with an intricate network of underground electrical and communication systems. A saltwater storm surge could cause untold millions in damage to those systems because of saltwater's propensity to cause accelerated corrosion in electrical equipment. Unlike freshwater, saltwater is slightly acidic and contains a higher concentration of minerals that increase the rate of oxidation on metals, such as copper, that are part of the electrical gridwork of lower Manhattan.

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Beyond the potential damage to the nation's financial institutions lies the catastrophic potential saltwater could have inside the NYC subway system, the largest public transportation system in the world with an average daily ridership of 8.5 million people. Should saltwater start pouring into the subway system the switches and signals that control the train traffic could sustain serious damage.  A U.S. Army Corp of Engineers study titled "The Metro New York Hurricane Transportation Study," predicts a lengthy, exhaustive clean-up effort.

"If New York-part of the Northeast megaregion-suffers a direct hit, workers will spend weeks pumping a billion gallons of brackish water out of its subway and train tunnels. The salt will corrode power lines, transformers and thousands of brakes and switches that control the trains. Some subsystems could take a year or more to restore," said a Popular Mechanics article citing the study.

MTA officials shut down the city's subway system early Sunday night to start preparing it for Hurricane Sandy. Part of that includes covering switches and other electrical components underground. Whether or not those preparations will prevent a weeks-or-months long shutdown of certain areas due to saltwter damage remains to be seen. There are 8.5 million pairs of fingers crossed hoping NYC's vital public transportation system gets through Hurricane Sandy unscathed. 

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