As we wake up to the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, it appears clear that the most lasting damage is to the New York City transit system. The MTA describes it as the biggest disaster in the 108-year history of the system. Seven subway tunnels are flooded, and system power has been either turned off or is simply malfunctioning.

5.2 million people take public transit in New York City every week. They won’t have that opportunity, save for the bus system, for who knows how long. This Wall Street Journal report, via Yves Smith, hits on some of the important points here:

The subway system is “in jeopardy,” MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said Monday. “Our subway system and salt water do not mix.”

Salt can eat at motors, metal fasteners and the electronic parts, some many decades old, that keep the system running. Salt water, and the deposits it leaves behind, degrades the relays that run the signal system, preventing train collisions. Salt water also conducts electricity, which can exacerbate damage to signals if the system isn’t powered down before a flood [...]

Agency officials couldn’t say how quickly the subway could be brought back into operation, but Mr. Lhota told a television crew in Manhattan late Monday it could be at least one week before service returned [...]

Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, wrote in a report last year that it could take as long as 29 days to pump out a full inundation of the tunnels.

I don’t know that we’re at full inundation, but clearly this is a major situation. After you pump out all the water, you have to inspect every inch of the track, a total of about 600 miles, before moving forward. So pumping the system dry is really just the beginning.

Like Yves, I worry about the untold number of low-income New Yorkers in the outer boroughs, who depend on that subway, who don’t have the means to use any other service, and who will now be corraled onto a bus system that cannot handle the demand. There’s talk of shutting down lanes to traffic and dedicating them to bus service. But you can hardly get the capacity to mirror the subway’s movement of people, even if you stacked buses on top of each other. As Yves writes:

What is going to happen to these people for the week or more while the subway is put back into service? The five boroughs has income disparity as high as China. Many of these people are modestly paid hourly workers, and some will be hit hard by the loss of even a week of income. These are the people you might or might not notice, yet are critical to the functioning of the city: the janitors, the cooks and delivery men, the people who run newsstands and dry cleaners and cobblers and food carts, the people who do secretarial and clerical work in businesses large and small throughout the city. And some are in more obviously important support roles, such as hospital orderlies, private duty nurses, home health aides, nurses and dental hygienists. And if the owners of some of these small businesses can’t get into the city and have to leave their shops shuttered or on reduced hours, they still have to pay the rent. There will be distress that will, as always, strike people who are not well placed, and here it will be by virtue of depending on the subway.

Anytime you have public services disrupted in America the impact falls on the poor. That’s just a truism. In this case, because it’s happening in the heart of the finance and commerce sector, it will also lay bare the enormous inequality at the heart of our modern economy. For many in New York, the loss of the subway won’t register the blink of an eye; for lots of others, it will mean everything.