Sunday, October 28, 2012

Frankenstorm shutdown -- what a difference a year (well, 14 months) makes


-- from

by Ken

What a strange afternnoon it was here in NYC, as we NY-ers went our more or less normal Sunday-afternoon way -- on an admittedly heavily overcast day, with increasingly sharp wind gusts -- counting down to the announced 7pm shutdown of the city's subways, with the buses to follow at 9pm, and in their wake other chunks of metropolitan infrastructure, structure, and superstructure announcing their shutdown plans. Without mass transit, the city doesn't function. (Mayor Mike has also ordered "mandatory" evacuation for resident's of the city's lowest-lying coastal areas.)

Of course, we're not even expecting to see anything of Hurricane Sandy until tomorrow, very likely late-ish tomorrow -- they're still saying that the time frame for real concern is Monday going into Tuesday. But as we learned last year with Hurricane Irene bearing down on us, you can't just shut the subways and buses down on a dime. NYC Transit, we learned back then, needs a day from the time the plug is pulled on service to actually get the system put to bed in a way that will keep it (a) safe from storm damage, or at least as safe as it can be made, and (b) ready to be restarted ASAP -- meaning yet another day -- once the "all clear" is sounded.

Last time none of us really understood this. Nobody involved -- either inside the transit system, or in government, or in the riding public -- had any experience of a planned shutdown of our mass transit. And so it was a weird new idea that the call had to be made 24 hours in advance of when the system would actually need protecting, or it would be too late to provide such protection as can be provided against a storm whose actual impact won't be known until it impacts.

By odd chance, I was about half an hour into a NY Transit Museum tour -- a terrific one, "Second Avenue Elevated and the East River -- 70 Years Later" -- when tour leader Andy Sparberger (a retired longtime manager with the Long Island Rail Road, part of the MTA, which his the parent org of NYC Transit) passed on the news from his cell phone that the 7pm shutdown that had been talked about as a possibility since the night before was now officially in place. I thought we would be biting our nails down to the 7pm witching hour. Instead we had the rest of the morning and all afternoon and early evening to go about our business before the beginning of the shutdown, itself a fully day before the need for it would arrive.

Late Friday afternoon, with the storm timetable more or less in place as it's remained, I had already received e-word of the cancellation of my scheduled Municipal Arts Society tours for Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and of an already-rescheduled walk in Fort Tryon Park by that unique geologist and educator Sidney Horenstein. It all worked out pretty well for me. I was able to slot in a Greenwich Village "ghost" walk with one of my favorite tour leaders, Justin Ferate, which I'd previously passed on because of the conflict with my MAS tour of four public schools in Brownsville (Brooklyn) designed by that master NYC school-builder of the C.B.J. Snyder, who was the Board of Ed's superintendent of school buildings from 1891 to 1923), led by Snyder schools scholar Jean Arrington. Also, I had worried about being able to get from the Second Avenue El tour, scheduled to end around 2pm, all the way uptown to Fort Tryon Park in time for Sid Horenstein's 3pm walk. Now instead I had been able to book a comp ticket for a 3pm organ recital at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side -- on Park Avenue at 84th Street, which I must have passed zillions of times.

So there I was, finishing up the Transit Museum tour on the East Side, within easy striking distance of St. Ignatius (I actually had to kill some time), knowing that the organ recital would let out around 4:30, leaving plenty of time to get home, up to Manhattan's far northern reaches, long before the subway shutdown. The organ recital, by Thomas Murray, a longtime Yale faculty member, was in fact quite terrific. Not only did I get to see the inside of the church for the first time, but I got to hear the organ custom-built for it and installed in 1993, and it's a blockbuster, which a veteran organist like Thomas Murray knows how to show off to the max in this wondefully chosen program. The organ is, to put it mildly, not my bailiwick, but I've never enjoyed an organ recital more.

Then afterwards, just as on any normal Sunday afternoon, it was walking up to 86th Street to catch a crosstown bus to catch the uptown no. 1 train. On the walk from the subway I looked in on a number of stores where there were things I might have shopped for, but luckily there wasn't anything I really needed -- I say "luckily" because those stores had humongous lines of a kind I've never seen.

When I got home, there was a message on my answering machine from my company's HR VP, from early this afternoon, saying that while the office would be technically open tomorrow, given the weather and transit realities we weren't expected to try to get to work. It was, I thought, an exceptionally thoughty action, that phone call, which I really appreciated -- so much so that I imposed on her time to return the call (via the miracle of Caller ID) to thank her. She stressed that the company doesn't want us to put ourselves in danger. Pretty darned classy, I thought.

As I write now, subway service is presumably kaput until such time as it's safe to resume and NYC Transit has done all the things it has to do to restart the system, including a visual inspection of every bit of subway track. (Did I mention that the biggest worry regarding the subways is flooding of the tunnels? Obviously, being underground, they're highly vulnerable, and every subway entrance offers flood waters an opportunity to get at them.)

And now we wait. Wherever you are, if you're in the storm path, I hope you're taking all the necessary precautions. Stay dry, and stay safe!



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