Transportation During and After Hurricane Sandy (New York, New Jersey)

This report details the efforts New York and New Jersey took to prepare for impacts to the transportation system before Hurricane Sandy, and measures state and local entities took after the storm to restore service and to improve the system. Although the report does not talk about climate change specifically, the measures discussed could be used to increase the resilience of transportation systems to extreme weather and impacts of climate change. The report also details investments that state and local entities could make to increase the resilience of transportation system such as installing backup power for subway pumps, increasing the use of porous pavements in flood-prone areas, and locating generators and fuel sources above flood elevations or out of floodplains.  

Sandy caused massive impacts to infrastructure causing closures of all major transportation arteries into the city on October 31 to November 1, 2012. The report includes a timeline of impacts to the transportation sector and actions taken to restore service after the storm. The regional transportation network (including subways, buses, commuter rails, bridges and tunnels) is relied upon by 10 million people per day.

Prior to the storm hitting, MTA shut down all subway, train, ferry and bus service and moved cars and equipment to higher ground. All major tunnels, bridges and shoreline highways were also closed in advance of the storm. After the storm 20 percent of city’s subway system, and major bridges and tunnels remained closed for more than a week (including Battery, Holland and Midtown tunnels), causing severe traffic gridlock. Sandy also caused a gas crisis because of power and supply shortages, which caused the governors of both states and the mayor of NYC to institute gas-rationing orders.

To address congestion caused by the closures, the city offered free subway fares for the portions of the subway that were reopened, and created a temporary shuttle bus service to substitute for closed subway lines. NYCDOT also created dedicated bus lanes on the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. Social media and transit agency authority websites were used to help people find open gas stations and to alert the public when subway and train lines were reopened.  Bike and pedestrian traffic tripled. The city also expanded ferry service. Privately run commuter vans shuttled people while other public transportation modes were shutdown. New York Police Department instituted high occupancy requirements requiring vehicles entering Manhattan to have three or more passengers.  Flooded tunnels were pumped to accommodate rush hour traffic.  For example, in the Hugh Carey tunnel MTA pumped and opened one tube at a time to accommodate rush hour into the city in the morning and out of the city in the evening.

The report also details preventative actions taken before the storm as a result of flooding caused by Hurricane Irene and other extreme rain events pre-dating Sandy. Before Sandy, MTA had implemented many improvements at a cost of $30 million that reduced damages from Sandy, including: retrofitting the most flood-prone stations; installing valves to keep pumped water from reentering stations; improving sewers; replacing or improving pumps; creating an MTA Emergency Response Center; raising subway entrances for 30 stations; raising or closing 1,500 ventilation grates; redesigning the MTA website to improve email and text alerts; and installing cellular or wi-fi service on subway platforms to improve communications with customers.

The report details the operational and maintenance preparations city and state transportation agencies made immediately before the storm to avoid and reduce impacts to the system. The NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM) convened police, fire, health, education and transportation departments to prepare for the storm's impacts. MTA also took actions to reduce or avoid impacts including: issuing a press release and alerting the public to a possible transit shutdown; moving buses and trains to higher ground; covering subway entrances and ventilation grates with sandbags and tarps; deploying crews to clean debris from pumps and drains for subways, tunnels and bridges; activating the Incident Command Center to coordinate personnel and manage MTA response; and readying pump trains, portable pumps and emergency response vehicles for deployment after the storm. These activities allowed MTA to send crews out with pump trains to dewater the system immediately after floodwaters began to recede. 

Finally, the report includes recommendations for long-term improvements that the region could take to increase the resilience of the system:

  • Buildings: amend building codes to require generators be relocated to higher floors rather than housed in basements to ensure back-up power during flood-induced outages;
  • Subways: install backup power for subway pump systems, flood gates and raised entrances at flood-prone stations; and consider using subway “plugs” (a balloon being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security that is used in advance of flooding to prevent water from entering tunnels).  
  • Buses: maintain priority bus lanes on bridges and major streets to accommodate high ridership and move buses through the city more efficiently; and include bus rapid transit as an alternative mode of transportation when subway lines are shutdown.
  • Streets and Sidewalks: increase use of porous pavements in flood-prone areas to prevent standing water; install elevated vents that can double as street furniture (benches and bike racks); evaluate using closable ventilation ducts to prevent floodwaters from entering subway tunnels.
  • Bike lanes: expand bicycle infrastructure to encourage alternative modes of transportation during outages, and evaluate creating bike and pedestrian access across currently inaccessible bridges such as the Verrazano bridge.
  • Ferries: increase ferry service from New York City to surrounding regions.  
  • General recommendations for improving the transportation system as a whole include: increasing funding for MTA; improving the use of social media to communicate outages; maintaining adaptation MTA maps that show outages, construction and detours for dissemination across multiple sources including smartphones; and foster greater ability for remote work.


This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support  from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on October 30, 2015.


Publication Date: November 2012

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Sarah Kaufman
  • Carson Qing
  • Nolan Levenson
  • Melinda Hanson

Related Organizations:


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Case study
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

States Affected:


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