The Day After Irene: US Northeast Counting Damage and Suffering From Commuting Nightmare

After the tropical Storm Irene had swept through the desolate streets of New York on Sunday New Yorkers faced a hellish commute on Monday and millions of Americans throughout the northeastern United States were left in the dark and flooded.

Nancy Zakhary and Eddie Lima of Brooklyn wade through flood waters filling the intersection of Main St and Plymouth St in Dumbo Brooklyn as Hurricane Irene reaches the New York City Area on August 28, 2011 in New York City. Hurricane Irene hit New York as a Category 1 storm before being downgraded to a tropical storm. Photo: Cvrcak1/Flickr

When the center of the storm arrived over New York City, about 9 a.m., winds had reached 65 miles per hour, making Irene the largest storm to hit the city in more than 25 years, even as the bulk of the storm’s power was reserved for the suburbs.

But after wide-ranging precautionary measures by city officials that included shutting down New York’s mass-transit network, sandbagging storefronts on Fifth Avenue and issuing evacuation orders for 370,000 people across the city, Hurricane Irene is likely to be remembered by New Yorkers more for what did not happen than for what did.

Windows in skyscrapers did not shatter. Subway tunnels did not flood. Power was not shut off pre-emptively. The water grid did not burst. There were no reported fatalities in the five boroughs. And the rivers flanking Manhattan did not overrun their banks.

But New Yorkers were bracing for a snarled commute on Monday, as transit officials scrambled to resuscitate the nation’s largest transit system.

Some trains would run, officials said late Sunday. New York’s subways would be largely operating, with the exception of some express trains and lines in the Rockaways. Officials warned that trains would likely be less frequent and more crowded.

The situation should improve over the course of the day, but that’s probably not much comfort to anyone expected to be at work by the start of business hours.

But many trains from the suburbs won’t be running—stranding hundreds of commuters who use them to get to work. Metro-North Railroad and New Jersey Transit were going to remain almost completely shut down. Between the two railroads, only a small New Jersey Transit branch to Atlantic City would run.

By late morning Sunday, flashlight-wielding Metropolitan Transportation Authority crews had begun inspecting on foot the 660 miles of subway tracks, 468 stations and 6,300 cars that transport about five million people daily.

Workers on the region’s transit systems confronted a daunting list of problems: fallen trees and utility poles; flooded rails and train yards; power outages; broken signals; and, in one case, a giant pile of mud on the tracks. Even when all that’s fixed, trains and their crews will have to be redeployed.

At a news briefing, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said city commuters would just have to wait and see. “Tough commute tomorrow, but you know, we have tough commutes all the time,” the mayor said.

He defended the decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to shut down MTA service, saying the storm might have done longer-term damage to transit equipment had cars not been evacuated from flooded yards.

“Certainly in retrospect, it was the right decision—the old adage, better safe than sorry,” Mr. Cuomo said in an interview with NY1.

Before the subway restoration was announced, some city residents were getting nervous.

‪Joe Barron, a 45-year-old East Side resident who owns a personal-training company, said he thought the mayor was overly sanguine about the mass transit options available to less affluent commuters.‪

“The mayor said we should find alternate commuting routes. People don’t own private cars in the city,” he said. “They could have taken a staged approach or kept a skeleton system. I have 60 employees who couldn’t work today.”

“All in all, we are in pretty good shape because of the exhaustive steps I think we took to prepare for whatever came our way,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a news conference on Sunday afternoon.

The storm caused several deaths in the region, including at least three in New Jersey.

New York’s economic costs have yet to be calculated. The weekend’s lost sales and storm damage could end up costing the city about $6 billion, said Peter Morici, a business school professor at the University of Maryland. The total national cost could reach $40 billion, Mr. Morici added.

New Jersey was hard hit by flooding, downed trees and power outages. More than 100 dams were being monitored for spills from high water, and one downstream town, High Bridge, was evacuated,  Governor Chris Christie said.

“If you don’t have to go to work tomorrow, don’t go to work tomorrow,” Christie told a news conference. “Tomorrow is going to be a very difficult day to travel around the State of New Jersey.”

“The real issue that we are going to have to deal with now is flooding,” Mr. Christie said.

Flooding in Philadelphia reached levels that had not been seen in that city in more than 140 years. Vermont was also struck particularly hard; even as the worst of the winds had dissipated, flooding forced officials to evacuate parts of southern Vermont, and floods were expected in the northern portion of the state as late as Monday.

“Many Americans are still at risk of power outages and flooding,” President Obama said, “which could get worse in the coming days as rivers swell past their banks.”

Mr. Obama said that though the storm had not proved as strong as many feared, the aftermath would be substantial. “The impacts of this storm will be felt for some time,” he said Sunday from the White House. “And the recovery effort will last for weeks or longer. I want people to understand that this is not over.”

This year has been one of the most extreme for weather in U.S. history, with $35 billion in losses so far from floods, tornadoes and heat waves. [via Reuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine]

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