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The Nightmarish Subway Floods in China Could Be Our Future

Photo: China Daily CDIC/VIA REUTERS

New Yorkers have barely recovered from the sight of subway riders pulling garbage bags over their legs to wade into waist-high brown pools at stations across the city. But somehow, over the past week, your imagined-yet-vaguely-plausible transit nightmare scenario got much, much worse. It rained two feet over the course of just four days in China’s Henan province — and in the capital, Zhengzhou, a city of 10.34 million people on the Yellow River, the flooding not only rushed into the stations but flooded the train tunnels too, filling commuter-packed trains nearly to the ceiling with gray-brown water.

The videos shared on social media are like something calculated to bring a New York straphanger to the edge of a deep and primal panic, and possibly over that edge. Riders are shown standing on the seats to keep their heads above the water, with just a couple feet of air below the trains’ ceilings. In the videos, the passengers are not (visibly) flipping out; they just look glum and resigned, able to do nothing but wait for rescue workers. In one video, the lights aboard the train are lit, which makes you wonder about the extra-horrifying possibility of a submerged third rail that is somehow live with voltage. At least 33 people died in the flood, including 12 in the subways. Oxygen became scarce in the crowded trains as the water rose higher, and people who were stuck for as long as 40 hours had little food or drinking water. This is happening just a few days after historic flooding in Germany turned village streets into brown torrents and flash flooding inundated highways in Detroit.

With intense rainfall increasingly common in New York — this month is on track to be the wettest July ever across the state it’s uncomfortably easy to imagine the water inching up the interior of an A train car stuck between stations as yet another storm sends water rushing into the tunnels below. Luckily, train flooding like this is more of a theoretical threat in New York than something that has actually happened, but the MTA has by no means shored the subways systemwide in the years since Superstorm Sandy. The floodproof Flex-Gates that it has installed in recent years have only gone into low-lying stations that were affected during Sandy, but as we saw just a few weeks ago, torrential rainfall can make the subway flood just about anywhere.

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