Discuss as:

For subway station devastated by Sandy, road to recovery just beginning

Craig Ruttle for NBC News

Corrosion and oxidation are being repaired in the signal relay room the South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan, devastated by flooding in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The station is being repaired with damage done to all components of the infrastructure, especially the electrical system.

When the gleaming South Ferry subway terminal in Lower Manhattan opened in 2009, it came with a vast concourse filled with public art installations of wrought iron and smoked glass, polished white walls—and a hefty $500 million price tag.

The cost of rehabilitating it from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy? At least $600 million—though a full assessment of the damage hasn’t even been done yet.

“It’s a complete gut job,” said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. “Every component of the station needs to be replaced.”

As communities rebuild and residents return to their homes, dozens of workers at the South Ferry station are taking the very first steps toward getting the station back online, starting with scrubbing mold from virtually every surface. Before the storm, 30,000 people passed through South Ferry each day, shuttling between Staten Island and Manhattan and around the labyrinthine streets of New York’s financial district.

Craig Ruttle / AP file (top), Cr

Joseph Leader (top) of the MTA shines a flashlight on standing water inside the South Ferry 1 train station in lower Manhattan on Oct. 31, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Six months later, Leader (bottom) descends the stairs toward the track in the same station.

Now, the stillness of the station is unsettling. The 90-foot platform sits empty, with strings of construction bulbs lighting two tracks and tunnel walls still covered with debris and dirt from the storm. Drywall and tiles have been ripped up by construction workers to expose the film of mold that quickly built up in the dark, humid space after the storm hit six months ago. The air is thick and pungent.

But the greatest damage inflicted from Sandy is not visible. The salty ocean water that flooded the station eighty feet below street level corroded nearly every piece of equipment in the space, adding considerably to the cost of recovery.

Over 700 relay components – devices critical to the signaling systems of trains – were destroyed. A separate room of signaling equipment at the end of the platform flooded to the ceiling and is now a “complete loss,” said Joseph Leader, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chief maintenance officer, who is overseeing the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the station.

Leader was actually the first person to see the damage from Sandy’s storm surge. On the morning after the storm passed late last October, Leader entered the station and saw “just a trickle” of water coming down the stairs, he said.

“I thought our barriers held and that we were doing good,” he said, referring to the makeshift barricades –sandbags and plywood -- the MTA constructed at the street-level entrances of certain exposed stations.

But as Leader ventured further, he realized the surge had breached the main station entrance. “Water was coming up the steps at me from the platform level, lapping at my feet,” he said. The entire subway "tube" was filled to the brim; 14 million gallons of seawater had to be pumped out before officials could even get a look at the destruction.

South Ferry was designed to be the last stop on a busy line that follows Broadway as it snakes through Manhattan as well as a connector to another main subway artery and the Staten Island Ferry. The original station, which opened in 1905, was much maligned for a layout quirk that only allowed five of ten subway cars to open at the platform; inattentive straphangers who neglected to move to one of the cars with open doors were forced to take the “loop” back uptown one stop to exit.

While the new South Ferry station addressed many of the engineering problems that existed at the old station, the possibility that a 14-foot storm surge could take it offline in the span of a few hours was not accounted for.

Craig Ruttle / Craig Ruttle for NBC News

The subway map, with mold spreading up from the bottom, can be seen on the platform after being under water at the damaged South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan. The station is being repaired with damage done to all components of the infrastructure, especially the electrical system.

The MTA says it is now “considering all options” that would mitigate the effects of a similar or even lesser surge as it rebuilds South Ferry, along with other vulnerable parts of its city-wide network (Sandy also wiped out an entire above-ground section of a subway line in the Rockaway section of Queens that is yet to be reopened).

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo laid some of these ideas out in his State of the State speech earlier this year, calling for subway stations to adopt “closing vents…roll down doors… inflatable bladders,” and repeating his refrain that “there is a 100 year flood every two years now” as reason to invest in infrastructure improvements.

One of the options under consideration involves letting subway tunnels and stations flood in a storm – but only after workers have removed valuable pieces of equipment and taken them to higher ground. This use of “modular infrastructure" allows critical gear to be packed up like suitcases and brought to higher ground so it can be “plugged right back in” after the pumps have removed the water from tunnels and stations, Leader said.

“Can you stop every ounce of water that comes into the system? Theoretically yes,” Leader said. “But is it feasible? Probably not.”

Footing the bill, at least in part, will be the feds. The MTA has received $1.2 billion to date in federal funding as part of the $51 billion Sandy relief bill signed by President Obama in January. It is asking for billions more (the total hit to New York’s transit system from Sandy is estimated to be $5 billion). The MTA plans a bifurcated approach to how that money is spent: partially for repairs to damaged infrastructure in places like South Ferry, and partially toward making long-term improvements that would harden and protect the system in future storms. 

“As we work to bring our system back to normal, we must also make the necessary investments to protect this 108-year old system from future storms. We must rebuild smarter. The South Ferry subway station is a perfect example,” said MTA Chief Executive Thomas Prendergast.

Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who specializes in urban economics and infrastructure, cautions that federal money is “apt to disappear quickly in cost overruns” and that the MTA should carefully examine precisely how it can apply the aid to projects that will keep the system from suffering catastrophic damage in the next storm, and not on “complex and untested mitigation efforts” that may not work.

Craig Ruttle for NBC News

Joseph Leader of MTA holds an example of cable damaged by sea water in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, typical of damage found at South Ferry subway station.

“Otherwise, this ‘free money’ from the feds doesn’t end up being free at all, and taxpayers end up on the hook,” Gelinas said.

The MTA recently reopened the old South Ferry station, which was entombed next to the new terminal after its grand opening four years ago – the first time the authority has ever brought a decommissioned station back into use, Leader said. Engineers knocked down a wall between the two stations to allow passengers to get to the old platform area through the new entrance. It’s a way to reestablish subway service to the area, however imperfect. “We’re building a new station within a new station,” Joe Leader said. “It’s going to take a while.”

Until that monumental task is completed, commuters in Lower Manhattan will need to reacquaint themselves with a once-familiar phrase thought to be relegated to history:

“You must be in the first five cars to exit at South Ferry.”

MTA Video Release: Hurricane Sandy - South Ferry and Whitehall St Station Damage.