Thursday, July 19, 2007

Up Scope!

Yesterday a brief but destructive storm swept over eastern Long Island, forcing a twenty minute downpour in front of it.

When I say "downpour", I don't mean the petty nonsense I used to see in England, with a few inches dropped over the course of a day or two. I mean a full-on biblical plague of vertical dampness the likes of which I've seen in Florida, in which people can be swept off their feet and motorcyclists get washed away.

It didn't help matters that the drains in most of the towns were so badly clogged they couldn't drain off a spilled cup of coffee in less than a day or so.

The Long Island Rail Road suffered catastrophic failure of everything but (amazingly) the third rail power throughout it's non-South Shore lines. Signals? A thing of the past; soaked, shorted, so much scrap. Of course, these signals will short out if a dog so much as thinks of piddling on one of the cables, so that's no real measure of the sheer volumes of wet that were being dropped on us, but take my word for it, this was one that would be painted on cave walls, carved into stellae, passed by word of mouth down the centuries and have people looking for an enourmous wrecked boat two thousand years later. The LIRR immediately went to the back up system: Train order movement.

Train order movement is as old as railways and probably older than mechanical semaphore signals. The dispatcher somehow communicates with the local signal boxes how the trains are to be prioritised, and the chef-de-signals hands a written order to the person in charge of each train as it passes each signal box.

I'm guessing that about now you are spotting one vital flaw in this system under conditions of monsoondeluge. Paper and ink do not stand up well to a light drizzle. I suspect the train orders were so much papier maché within seconds of them being produced.

Westbury was underwater on both sides of the station.

"See that lake that has made a thing of aquatic terror of the car park entrance?" I said to a fellow commuter. "That is the same flood that used to form when I lived here twenty years ago. So much for progress".

It's amazing what a few dead leaves, left for two decades to compact down into the drains, will do to a small town's streets.

Mineola, a watery hell-hole at the best of times, was a thing of high comedy. A construction pit, some twenty or thirty feet deep, was now brimming with water. There was heavy plant in that pit. You couldn't tell from looking at the small inland sea that had formed next to the station though. Did I say station? I meant to say scenic waterfall. Water was literally cascading over the infill that the platform was built over. this because the Winthrop hospital multi-storey car-park had been transformed into a five-storey cataract of death. Some doctors had foolishly parked expensive foreign sports cars in the lower level. Lower as in "lower than the local ground datum". These were bobbing merrily in about eight feet of water like a bunch of fairground bumper boats. One or two were undergoing a reenactment of the wrecking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

We sat stalled in this station for about 30 minutes (another thirty having been lost about two miles east at Westbury) while the thundering River Huntingdon-Main-Line pounded and crashed about our wheels. What a magnificent sight it made as it swirled along, washing away the balast applied only a couple of months ago. We took bets on the floating dog-corpses as to which would reach the grade crossing at the high street first (having previously agreed where the grade crossing would be said to be located, it being totally invisible due to the newly formed Ganges where once there was trackbed).

All too soon the adventure was over and we were turfed off the train at Jamaica, which for once smelled and looked clean since all the filth from the railroad cars, station and the trackbed had washed into the gardens of the local citizens.

A wait of only 25 minutes saw us on the Brooklyn train, which whisked us to Flatbush Avenue station, now transformed by nature into a Ridley Scott "Bladerunner" set with water cascading onto the marvelling passengers as they debarked (and deswore) and flooded into the subway station.

I got to work only about two hours late, my commute having consumed three hours (forty miles, remember).

That evening I had an uneventful trip home, and arrived chez Stevie to begin pumping out the basement. After I had done that I emptied about a pound of soil-like silt from each downspout, it having been powerwashed off the roof shingles by Mother Nature that morning to ensure maximum chaos. The downspouts are made from sheet aluminum with a seam down one side. Said seam will burst if the pipe loads up with water, which it must have doone since at least one of the pipes had over four inches of compacted muck in it and a split seam. Still, I expect the gutters are clean now.

Flipping through the TV channels I discovered that in Manhattan the cold influx of about a gajillion pints of water to the subsurface steam pipes had caused "water hammer" , resulting in a violent explosion that tore through the road surface in a manner Hollywood film-makers would have cried to see. Fortunately, the steam pipe was of early 1920s vintage, so the fallout of filthy (and hot) water was laced heavily with asbestos sludge. The damage to the road was sever enough to cause a tow truck to be swallowed a-la earthquake, and some poor sod had a heart attack from the noise and died. A complete and utter fiasco of gigantic proportions.

I can't understand how it missed me.

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