As New Yorkers woke up to massive power outages, burning homes, the closure of major transportation arteries, downed trees, streets awash with water and an utterly crippled public transit system, there’s still more to worry about.


New York City’s infamous rodent population.


Although nobody has taken an exact count, it’s generally estimated that there are more rats than inhabitants (8.3 million) in the city that never sleeps, with some estimates going as high as 32 million. Horror stories of colossal, teeming rat populations residing deep in the belly of the subway system is a bit of a myth, but many of the tunnels and stations are still pretty packed with rats, earning the city the distinction of Worst Rat City in the World. And with Hurricane Sandy’s deposit of massive amounts of water into the subterranean system, many of the rodents may be flooded out of their underground abodes.


All five subway tubes beneath the East River between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn and the Steinway tube between Midtown and Queens are filled with water, water that needs to be pumped since it won’t recede on its own. Where will the rats go?

Rick Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Milbrook, N.Y., told the Huffington Post, "Rats are incredibly good swimmers, and they can climb." He adds that they will escape the floods and head for safer ground, such as apartments and other buildings by humans.


According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service:


  • Rats can climb brick walls, trees, and telephone poles, and walk across telephone lines.
  • Rats can safely fall from a height of 50 feet.
  • Rats can jump three feet in the air from a flat surface and leap more than four feet horizontally.
  • Some species of rats can swim more than a mile in open water, and can tread water for up to three days.
  • Some species of rats can travel through sewer pipes and dive through water plumbing traps.

Ostfeld notes that the result of a deluge of displaced rats looking for dry shelter could result a rise in infectious diseases carried by urban rats, including leptospirosis, hantavirus, typhus, salmonella and even the plague.


And if plague isn’t troubling enough, there have been endless citizen reports of flooded streets slicked with gas and diesel, possible sewage from blocked sewer systems, and other assorted toxins paving the roads of the city.

Of particular note is the Gowanus Canal in the trendy neighborhood of Gowanus, Brooklyn. The Superfund site has long been home to extensive industrial activity and is known for its profusion of toxic sludge and pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency describes the canal as “one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies.” And much like most of the waterways experiencing the unprecedented storm surge of Sandy, the Gowanus escaped its boundaries and spilled forth through the streets. (See before and after images here.)


In the meantime, if you are a city resident, keep your eye out for rodents making themselves at home in your house, and follow these tips for controlling pests without hurting yourself and your family.


Related hurricane stories on MNN:

Has Hurricane Sandy forced diseased rats out of the subway?
Experts say subway tunnels flooded by Hurricane Sandy could displace rats and potentially lead to a rise in cases of leptospirosis, hantavirus, typhus, salmonel