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How giant inflatable balls will protect NYC subways from future floods

Today makes it the sixth day I’ve had to work from home due to service suspension and disruptions post-Hurricane Sandy. I’ve not gone outside since Sunday because there really isn’t a place for me to go, and it’s making me lose my mind. My local train station, which normally services five lines, has reduced down to just one train because all other tunnels are still flooded. Though highly uncommon, instances like these remind me how integral the New York public transit system is to our metropolitan lives. In an effort to prevent prolonged subway disruptions in the future, the Department of Homeland Security is testing giant inflatable plugs to help seal underground stations from flood water.

As part of the “Resilient Tunnel Project,” the inflatable plugs would also be able to double as protection against terrorist gas attacks by blocking things from entering or escaping the tunnels while the plugs are in place. Not to mention how these blow-up balls are pretty simple in theory; they’re basically made to contour to the opening of the tunnel and act as temporary seals.

Naturally, the construction is a little more complex thanks to three layers of webbing and liquid-crystal polymer fiber for industrial strength guard. Each plug must also be custom-fitted to each tunnel openings rather than hope for a one-size-fits-all contour. In a real world use, the plugs could be inflated with either air or water, and can be done so in just three minutes. 

“This is an experimental prototype. This is something that is probably two years away or so from real-world applications,” Department of Homeland Security project manager John Fortune tells CNN. Although the plugs would have prevented water from entering the majority of downtown subway stations, underwater tunnels running across the East River still would have flooded since those infrastructures are porous in nature, he said.

The prototypes for these inflatable plugs values at approximately $400,000 apiece, which, in retrospect, is worth the cheap fix investment. While the plugs may not be foolproof, it would be able to decrease damage by tenfolds. All things considered, if climate changes are to blame for freak hurricanes being the new normal, manufacturers should start on prepping these babies soon before the next disaster strikes … which we hope is at least more than two years away.

Here’s a demonstration of the inflatable flood plugs, courtesy of CNN.