WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
One Blizzard, Two Markedly Different Approaches in NJ and NYC
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
On Tuesday, Mayor Bloomberg was careful not to overpromise. With dozens of ambulances and hundreds of buses still stranded, he was trying to manage expectations. Outer borough council members said constituents had not yet seen a snow plow.
"I don’t know that you ever get everything plowed because there always are streets, there are streets not even on the map... but I think you can expect another 24 hours before we’ll get to everyone, and even then I'm not so sure," he said.
That was quite a contrast to the mayor's stoic detachment a day earlier, when he didn't seem to fully grasp just how dysfunctional things had become for most New Yorkers. "The world has not come to an end," he said. "The city is going fine. Broadway shows were full last night. There are lots of tourists here enjoying themselves."
Mayor Bloomberg kept the city open for business on Monday and held the NYPD's graduation ceremony for more than 1,100 police cadets and their families at Madison Square Garden.
Meanwhile, west of the Hudson in New Jersey, Acting New Jersey Governor Steve Sweeney had declared a statewide snow emergency the night before (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was out of state.) That declaration marshalled all of the state's resources including the National Guard. He bought himself time by granting the state workforce a two-hour delayed opening.
"The State of Emergency gives us the ability to get a lot of vehicles off the road where we can get our roads cleaned up as fast as possible and this evening there are going to be some really high winds so we are going to have blizzard conditions this evening so it is best for people to get off the road," Sweeney told WNYC Sunday night.
The next moning, Sweeney closed state government except for the state's essential emergency personnel.
That Bloomberg decision to keep the city's massive workforce on the hook for the day really irked Councilman Peter Vallone, chairman of the Council's Public Safety Committee. He said the Bloomberg administration made a critical error when it decided not to close city agencies.
"It was absolutely a mistake," says Vallone. "There were people stranded on trains, people stranded on roads, people falling on the pavement. Nobody but essential personnel should have been coming in."
Vallone said he closed his office Monday, but he said his Facebook page blew up with hundreds of complaints from constituents about the lack of snow plows.
"There was just a storm last December which was almost as bad as this one and we saw snow plows all day and all night," Valone said on Tuesday. "For the last 24 hours, we have seen no snowplows. We are finally beginning to see snow plows on the side streets of Queens. But we have been left on our own and it has been a very dangerous situation."
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn says she is convening emergency oversight hearings because this response was such a degradation from similar snow emergencies. Quinn said she is not clear why the Bloomberg administration did not declare a snow emergency as was done in New Jersey. She says Mayor Bloomberg's response that it would have caused more chaos left her perplexed.
“Well, that makes me ask, why do we have snow emergency rules that don’t work in a snow emergency!" Quinn said. "Maybe we in fact need to look at the way we define snow emergency and the rules we put in place around snow emergencies and bring them up to date.”
Earlier in the week the city's Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joe Bruno said only the governor could make such a declaration. But Dennis Michalski, with the state's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, says any local mayor has that power.
Firefighters' union president Steve Cassidy says many companies could not reach fires due to snowed-in streets or because they were covering for ambulances stuck in the snow. "Response times were affected dramatically and at one point, half of the engine companies were unavailable to respond to fires or other emergencies because they were assigned to medical emergencies."
On Monday, the city's 311 phone line had 250,000 calls. One major problem was that out of the close to 50,000 911 calls the NYPD received, only 10,000, or one in five, were actual emergencies.
Floating in the background is the question of whether cutting of 400 Sanitation Department slots was part of what slowed the response. Back in October, Stephen Goldsmith, the new Deputy Mayor for Operations, who replaced experienced city hand Ed Skyker, may have gotten off on the wrong foot with the Department of Sanitation middle management when he hailed his plan to demote 100 sanitation supervisors.
The Daily News Adam Lisberg and Lisa Colangelo reported in October that as a result, the busted supervisors got their pay cut $5,000 and the remaining supervisors got almost double the workload.