In the Cross-Hairs of the Storm

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Reflection of streetlight from wet sidewalk in the rain

The city that never sleeps, the big apple, has been shut down. 370,000 people have been evacuated from coastal areas, buses and subways have come to a halt. Two low-lying airports will be closed. All because of Irene. Some are suggesting that the plans are “overkill” or that the Mayor is over-compensating for a winter storm that received less than optimal attention. Time will tell. What the storm lacks in punch it seems to make up in size.

How much damage the storm will do depends as much upon the underlying condition of the city as the wind, rain, or our public and private preparations. Lots of attention is focused on what is happening now. But I am starting off this hurricane coverage of photos and descriptions with a walk about an outlying neighborhood to look at the underlying conditions Irene will find. If you live in a more rural setting, some of these utilities you have to maintain yourself. In the city, we depend upon others for maintenance.

Insulation burning off wires

Electrical Supply always seems to be at risk during storms. Overhead wires are easier to work on and can carry more amperage, but are subject to the weather. Many places in NYC have underground lines. The long term plan is to place all the wiring underground. Perhaps this is one reason we can look at the wires and in many neighborhoods see the insulation has melted off. The wires are rated in part based upon the heat rating of the insulation. When too much amperage is passed through the wires, they heat up. These neighborhoods keep demanding more power but new lines are not strung. The wires in this picture are carrying more power than the insulation has been rated to withstand and the insulation is melting off. Under normal conditions, it is not harmful in itself but it shows a lack of attention.

Removing water is very important in a storm. Now, the storm drains are usually a different system from the sewers, but, once, all the roof drains went into the sewers. Enough water gets into the sewers that, under the right conditions, during heavy rains, the sewers will back up into buildings.

Storm drains are located at street intersections. They are built in such a way that debris will fill up a catch basin below and as the water rises it reaches the level of the drain pipe. The catch basins are supposed to be cleaned out regularly but the one in this picture is half full of debris. If the debris blocks the piping, the street will flood. If nearby houses are low enough they will flood as well. The city is desperately trying to clean out the catch basins, but this one is very far from Manhattan and it is doubtful it will receive any attention before the storm.

Every engineer must have a design standard. Weather patterns are observed and the once-in-20 year storm or the once-in-100 year storm is used as the standard. The system must be designed to remove so many inches of rain per hour. New York’s drainage system old and is so substandard that there is always flooding with heavy rains. This area is supposed to get even more water with climate change. This situation will only get worse.

One solution is green roofs: A study has determined that, “…a roof of vegetation retains 30 percent of the rainwater that falls on it. The results of the study offer a possible solution for NYC’s overburdened storm sewers.”

And so, from Irene we can expect flooding, power outages and sewer back-ups due not only to the heavy winds and rain but from utility design and maintenance issues. Many of the anticipated problems will result from differed maintenance. Differed maintenance is borrowing and is similar to taking money from the bank. It is borrowed at interest. The cost of materials, labor and scope of the work seem to always increase. If we wait long enough, there will be a catastrophic failure.

In the next section I will look at some storm issues less frequently mentioned around the house and buildings. Look here again in 3 hours for an ongoing study of the storm from NYC with some useful gadgets and techniques.

See: In the Cross-Hairs of the Storm 2


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