Blizzard Answers At Council Hearing
January 10th, 2011
On Christmas Eve, days before snow began to fall on New York City, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty were on the phone.
The winter weather watch had not yet been issued by the National Weather Service. Doherty and Sadik-Khan talked about their options for the looming storm, which at that time was supposed to bring several inches to the Big Apple.
A day later, on Christmas, the National Weather Service upgraded the city’s storm warning to a blizzard at 3:55 p.m. It defiantly told New Yorkers: “Do not travel.” It warned the city could see high winds and up to 16 inches of snow.
On Dec. 26th, two days after their first conversation about the storm, the two commissioners decided not to call a city snow emergency — a rare designation that would force certain residents to move their cars off narrow streets and prohibit driving any vehicle not equipped with chains or snow tires.
They did not tell Goldsmith or the mayor about their decision.
This one decision, officials said today, created a serious snowball effect that ultimately left the city unprepared to deal with the now-infamous Boxing Day blizzard.
“We didn’t want residents to take those cars out, start looking for a parking space — we all know in New York City it’s very difficult to find — and then [create] more problems that we were trying to avoid,” Doherty told the City Council this afternoon at the first of seven hearings on the blizzard response. Every agency head involved and 42 council members attended today’s hearing, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn who normally sits out of the hearing process.
In retrospect, Goldsmith said this afternoon, the decision to call a snow emergency would have acted like a “catalyst,” triggering other agencies to respond with speed and seriousness to the storm. Instead, between Dec. 26 and New Year’s Day, Bloomberg administration officials scrambled to keep up with the 20-inch snowfall, which left ambulances, buses and abandoned vehicles stuck in unplowed streets.
Officials acted without a concrete chain of command and City Hall failed to get a complete picture of how bad the situation really was, Goldsmith said.
“The mayor did not have the information he deserved,” Goldsmith said, contending there was a communication breakdown between city agencies. “I accept responsibility in doing that more rigorously in the future,” he added.
Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis who joined the administration last spring, promised to never let it happen again. As part of that pledge, the administration unveiled a 15-point plan to prevent similar slow responses. (More on that plan here.) They will have an opportunity to test it tomorrow. Snow is expected to start accumulating tomorrow evening, and by Wednesday night we could have another foot on the ground.
On Boxing Day, Goldsmith said he put his trust in the city’s top commissioners, who had tackled 70-plus similar snowfalls.
“I wasn’t going to interfere with a working model,” the deputy mayor said.
Beyond the failure to call an emergency, the city did not get the proper equipment and day laborers for a storm of this size, and was out of touch with which streets were being plowed when. About 50 percent of sanitation trucks are without radios, Doherty said, so sanitation supervisors did not of unplowed streets or stuck vehicles unless they saw their workers in the flesh.
The administration’s new plan will not only restructure how it calls snow emergencies, but it will also require GPS systems on all sanitation trucks. A mayoral spokesperson could not provide an estimate for how much this plan will cost.
Bloomberg adminsitration officials deflected accusations that the slow snow response was because of budget cuts. The sanitation department’s manpower was at its lowest in February 2010 — the last large snowstorm in the city, which went smoothly, officials said.
“It’s not nickle and dimes when it comes to peoples’ lives. My workforce is hurting,” said Harry Nespoli, the president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, at today’s hearing. “We need more trucks, more manpower. We’re cut so tight.”
Today’s hearing was not without theatrics. When asking administration officials about chains on sanitation equipment, Sanitation Chair Letitia James thrust a heavy steel example in the air. She said those were the chains the city used to use. She then grabbed another set made of nickel magnesium alloy, saying it was what was used during the blizzard. They were much smaller.
Council members, however, did not hesitate to slam the administration for a so-called unequal response. Councilmember David Greenfield of Brooklyn accused the administration of favoring Manhattan and sidelining the outer boroughs during plowing.
“Are outer borough residents second class citizens?” asked Greenfield, whose district had some of the worst responses from the city.
Councilmember Charles Barron went further. Standing up in front of the standing room only crowd at the Emigrant Savings Bank, Barron urged residents to not blame Department of Sanitation employees but to point at the administration.
“I think you and the mayor should be investigated,” Barron said.
Goldsmith, who was appearing before the council for the first time, took that icy response in stride: “I appreciate the depths of your opinion,” Goldsmith said. “I categorically disagree.”By Courtney Gross on January 10, 2011, 7:02 pm
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