City Council Holds Hearing on Blizzard Response

New York’s Deputy Mayor for Operations Stephen Goldsmith says, knowing what he knows now, it was a mistake for the city not to call a snow emergency before the December 26 blizzard.

At Monday’s seven-and-a-half-hour marathon hearing at the City Council, Goldsmith and other top aides to Mayor Michael Bloomberg admitted to multiple mistakes in their decision-making and said many improvements were already being implemented.

In his testimony, Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, chair of the Oversight and Investigations committee, reminded council members and those testifying why they were there. "People reached out to us for help. Help because their streets were still not plowed, three and four days after the last snow flake fell, help because they were struggling to make it to the hospital. Help because they couldn't make it to work. Help because they had no food," he said.

A key focus of the hearing was the city's decision not to declare a snow emergency during the blizzard."The decision not to declare a snow emergency was understandable," said Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. "However, based on what we know now, an emergency declaration of some sort would have been helpful."

He said that declaring a snow emergency might have triggered a more urgent reaction among all agencies, and let the city get a head start in the cleanup. "Going forward, the city will establish a more formal process for considering emergency declarations in all circumstances, particularly in severe weather events," he said.

The Bloomberg Administration said it found problems in six key areas, including accountability, communication between city agencies and with the public, and emergency response. To that end, the city released a 15-point plan to address problem areas.

The plan includes deploying sanitation trucks with GPS devices — something the city did during last week's minor snowstorm — to track their clean-up progress. Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty admitted that his department's reputation had been compromised by its response to the storm. "We know our reputation as the world's best snow fighters has been called into question," he said. "And we must work to prove we deserve this distinction."

Questioning became heated when Queens Councilman Peter Vallone — chair of the council's Public Safety Committee — asked Doherty about the department's decision to stop using salt during portions of the blizzard.

"Spreaders were still out there and they were plowing," Doherty said. "They weren't laying salt, but they were plowing."

"No they weren't," Vallone said. "At some point you have to realize they were not plowing. Okay, they may have been on some highways, they may have been in Manhattan, but they weren't in Queens, they weren't in Brooklyn, they weren't on Staten Island. They were not plowing where they should have been."

Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, had harsh words for the Bloomberg administration. "We could do better? Anyone could do better," he said. "That idea, that mea culpa, doesn't cut it. The bottom line was, it was the day after Christmas, and maybe people just weren't around that should have been around that make decisions in the New York City government."