People are ‘swimming’ in New York subway stations after Elsa. What does the climate crisis have to do with it?

New Yorkers were donning garbage bags and braving waist-deep murky water on their commutes

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Friday 09 July 2021 20:04 BST
Heavy rain floods New York subway station as Storm Elsa nears

It takes a lot to shock New Yorkers, but scenes of subway riders wading through murky, waist-deep water in stations took many aback.

Tropical Storm Elsa, which swept across the region causing widespread flooding on Thursday, deluged New York City and the surrounding area.

Videos posted to social media showed the impact of the downpours on apartment buildings, roadways, and the New York subway system. At the 157th Street station in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, one woman could be seen plunging into the dark water to make her way to the train.

In another video, a subway rider donned a garbage bag to wade to the platform.

Despite the videos, “we actually weathered the storm quite well”, interim New York City Transit president Sarah Feinberg later told the Associated Press, adding that subway flooding lasted only a few minutes and caused minor disruption.

Others did not see it so optimistically. Eric Adams, who won the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor earlier this week, tweeted: “This is what happens when the MTA makes bad spending decisions for decades. We need congestion pricing $ ASAP to protect stations from street flooding, elevate entrances and add green infrastructure to absorb flash storm runoff. This cannot be New York.”

The MTA did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent.

The NYC subway is operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and falls under state control, not the local city government. Its frequent delays and slow service have long been lamented by locals, with New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio at one point calling it “woefully underfunded”.

Others point to the fact that the century-old transit network was not designed for the impacts of an ever-worsening climate crisis. Even on dry days, the MTA is pumping out millions of gallons of water from the subway system.

Kendra Pierre-Louis, from Gimlet Media, tweeted: “There’s a video circulating of a flooded NYC subway system and people are using it to dunk on the subway. I get it but people are really missing the point: the subway was never designed to handle this b/c this wasn’t supposed to happen.”

While a single flash flooding event cannot be instantly linked to climate change, scientists are increasingly conducting attribution studies – which look at how global heating influences an extreme weather event. An international team of scientists this week published a rapid analysis which concluded North America’s deadly heatwave would have been “virtually impossible” without the human-driven climate crisis.

Around the world, the “fingerprint” of climate change can be seen in rapidly intensifying storms, scientists say. The ocean absorbs most excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions, causing hotter, moist air which amps up storms and generates heavier rainfall.

These types of extreme events now also happen more frequently. Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season broke records with 29 named storms.

In 2012, rains from Superstorm Sandy swamped New York City, shutting down public transport and plunging large areas of the city into blackout in the days leading up to the presidential election. And the climate crisis is expected to bring heavier rainfall, higher sea levels, and more frequent and intense storms to New York City.

Since Sandy, the MTA has been making improvements for the next big one, including installing Kevlar-strengthened “flex gates” that can be pulled across subway entrances in minutes to prevent floodwaters cascading in.

But many fear that the city is still not far along enough in preparations to handle larger and more intense storms.

“Having pumped water out of our tunnels during Superstorm Sandy, I know extreme weather events like these won’t just go away. We must invest in resiliency strategies now to protect our city and keep New Yorkers safe. Climate change is an urgent crisis,” tweeted Kathryn Garcia, another mayoral candidate and the former NYC sanitation commissioner.

New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed her GOP colleagues on Twitter for blocking the Green New Deal, which would provide funding to upgrade America’s infrastructure for future climate impacts.

“The Green New Deal, which is a blueprint to create millions of good jobs rebuilding infrastructure to stem climate change & protect vulnerable communities, is unrealistic,’” Rep Ocasio-Cortez posted. “‘Instead we will do the adult thing, which is take orders from fossil fuel execs & make you swim to work.”

The post appeared to reference a recent undercover investigation by Greenpeace in which an ExxonMobil lobbyist revealed the oil giant is targeting both Democrats and Republicans to kneecap President Biden’s milestone infrastructure legislation to address climate impacts.

Elsa continued to batter the New York region on Friday, toppling trees and hindering travel as it barreled its way up the East Coast towards New England.

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