Inaction and Delays by New York as Storm Bore Down
NYC councilman repeats charges of sanitation “snow slowdown”
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Wednesday with, from left, Jay H. Walder, M.T.A. chairman; Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation chief; Joseph F. Bruno, the city’s emergency manager, and John J. Doherty, the city’s sanitation commissioner.
At 3:58 a.m. on Christmas Day, the National Weather Service upgraded its alert about the snow headed to New York City, issuing a winter storm watch. By 3:55 p.m., it had declared a formal blizzard warning, a rare degree of alarm. But city officials opted not to declare a snow emergency — a significant mobilization that would have, among other things, aided initial snow plowing efforts.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority entered the holiday weekend with modest concerns about the weather. On Friday, it issued its lowest-level warning to subway and bus workers. Indeed, it was not until late Sunday morning, hours after snow had begun to fall, that the agency went to a full alert, rushing to call in additional crew members and emergency workers. Over the next 48 hours, subways lost power on frozen tracks and hundreds of buses wound up stuck in snow-filled streets.
By 4 p.m. Sunday, several inches of snow had accumulated when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made a plea for help at his first news conference about the escalating storm: he asked people with heavy equipment and other kinds of towing machinery to call the city’s 311 line to register for work. A full day had gone by since the blizzard warning had been issued.
This week, as Mr. Bloomberg conceded that the city’s response to the blizzard had been inadequate, many theories, in both shouts and whispers, have been offered to explain the shortcomings: the Sanitation Department had undergone staffing cuts; the ferocity of the snowfall and the power of the accompanying winds had presented extraordinary challenges to the city’s snow plows; angry sanitation workers had sabotaged the efforts; city residents had ignored common sense and wound up stranding their cars in streets across the five boroughs.
On Wednesday, the mayor and his commissioners pledged to get at the truth. Once the streets have been cleared, they said, all aspects of the response will be analyzed, and changes, if necessary, will be made.
“I could stand here and list maybe 10 or 12 items and say this is what my problem was or that’s what my problem was,” John J. Doherty, the sanitation commissioner, said at a news conference with Mr. Bloomberg. “The mayor has pointed out there will be a postmortem on this storm. I’m not here to make excuses right now.”
Any post-mortem, then, seems destined to scrutinize the city’s decision not to declare a snow emergency, the transit agency’s delay in invoking a full-scale emergency plan, and the seemingly late and limited bid for outside help.
Emergency or Not?
The storm, if it exposed shortcomings in the city’s emergency response system, did not take it by surprise.
The National Weather Service began issuing its first hazardous-weather outlooks for the city on Tuesday, Dec. 21. The alarm was modest, the sense of certainty elusive.
But by Friday, the Weather Service was forecasting a 30 to 40 percent chance of six inches or more of snow, most likely north and east of the city, accompanied by wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour, from Sunday afternoon into Monday.
“However,” it cautioned, “a storm track only about 100 miles west of the expected track could bring a significant wind-driven snowfall to the entire region.”
Over the next 24 hours, that likelihood grew, and an hour or so before dawn on Christmas, the Weather Service upgraded the notification to a winter storm watch, which called for six to eight inches of snow and strong, gusty winds for the city and the surrounding region.
City officials maintain that they were closely monitoring the updates. But the deputy mayor in charge of overseeing the snow response, Stephen Goldsmith, had left New York for the Washington area. A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg insisted that Mr. Goldsmith was in regular communication with agency chiefs: Mr. Doherty, the sanitation commissioner; Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner; and Joseph F. Bruno, the head of the Office of Emergency Management.
Those officials soon had more information about the storm, and a major decision to make.
At 3:55 p.m. on Saturday, the Weather Service issued a blizzard warning, forecasting 11 to 16 inches of snow, with higher amounts in some areas. It warned that strong winds would cause “considerable blowing and drifting of snow” that could take down power lines and tree limbs.
“Extremely dangerous travel conditions developing due to significant snow accumulations,” it said.
The city has long had a weapon in its arsenal to consider for such moments: the ability to declare a snow emergency.
Doing so allows the city to ban vehicles from parking on more than 300 designated “snow emergency streets.” Vehicles that remain after the declaration can be ticketed or towed. And any vehicles moving on those streets must use chains or snow tires.
The rationale is straightforward: clearing vehicles from those streets gives plows the best chance to move through them rapidly, keeping emergency services routes open and allowing the plows to move onto secondary streets.
Norman Steisel, who was at the forefront of snow removal in the city for a dozen years during the Koch and Dinkins administrations, said the declaration of an emergency from a mayor also helped clarify among the public the confusing array of forecasts often heard on television.
“It’s a very strong, powerful public message which has a certain effect,” Mr. Steisel said.
Jerome M. Hauer, who spent four years as the city’s emergency management commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, said he advised the mayor on whether to declare a snow emergency based on forecasts from the Weather Service and other sources.
There were no hard and fast rules, Mr. Hauer said, but anything above six or seven inches would start “to create problems for the city, so it was clear you’d have to start thinking it was time to declare a snow emergency.”
Both current and former city officials had difficulty recalling how many times such an emergency had been declared. One current official said the last one had been declared in 2003.
Still, Mr. Hauer asserted, “if they said we were getting a blizzard, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
But the Bloomberg administration decided not to call a snow emergency. One city official briefed on the response to the storm said it was explicitly considered. But ultimately Mr. Doherty and Ms. Sadik-Khan decided against it, said Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for Ms. Sadik-Khan.
Mr. Solomonow said the forecast was not severe enough.
“As of about 5 p.m. on Christmas Day,” he said, “the forecast called for about a foot of accumulation, which is not uncommon and which is not a basis for a snow emergency declaration.”
Mr. Bloomberg, asked Tuesday why an emergency had not been declared, confused the issue by asserting that doing so would have put more cars on the roads, potentially creating more problems. But clearly, had he declared an emergency shortly after the Weather Service’s blizzard warning, there would have been ample time to move cars before the heavy snow began.
Mr. Hauer called the decision bewildering, and Mr. Bloomberg’s claims misleading.
“We’ve done snow emergencies in the city for decades, many decades, and people have always found a place to put their cars,” said Mr. Hauer, who has had many angry disagreements with Mr. Bloomberg over the years. “You’ve just got to give them enough time.”
The Transit Response
On Friday morning, top managers at New York City Transit gathered for a ritual that occurs every weekday from November through April: to make a decision, based on weather forecasts, about whether to put in place precautionary measures in the case of a winter storm.
The managers can choose from one of four plans, prescribed each year in a telephone-book-size manual that lays out, in 300 pages of excruciating detail, the exact process for keeping the nation’s largest public transportation system functioning in the event of inclement weather. Plan 1, the lowest level of preparation, takes effect when the temperature drops below 30 degrees; Plan 4, the full-press emergency response, is activated when at least five inches of snow is expected.
By that morning, the Weather Service had been warning of a significant winter storm starting on Sunday afternoon. But at 11 a.m., the managers issued a proclamation of Plan 1.
Officials, who had been tracking the storm since Wednesday, believed that the city would be spared the brunt of the storm.
The decision would have far-reaching consequences: because of a quirk in the transit agency’s system, the plan chosen on Friday stays in effect all weekend. And the agency would not officially make the switch to Plan 4 until 11 a.m. on Sunday, when snow was already building up on the streets.
Because the agency had opted for the modest response, several important aspects of rescue operations and disaster preparedness — diesel trains and other heavy machinery, like trains that blow snow off tracks or spray antifreeze on the third rail — were not automatically deployed.
As Christmas wore on, and forecasts became darker, Thomas F. Prendergast, the president of New York City Transit, began attending meetings with officials from the Bloomberg administration and the Office of Emergency Management. By the end of the day, he had ordered crews to start storing some trains underground for the night, a standard procedure to keep subway cars from freezing up.
But, officially, the transit agency was still operating under its less-than-urgent response mode. Many managers, faced with low staffing levels because of the holiday week, had not yet tried to round up additional crew members or emergency workers.
“Upgrading to Plan 4 would kick into operation the deployment of equipment, the deployment of personnel,” said one subway official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the response. “We would have had personnel on standby.”
By early Sunday, top transit officials were enmeshed in conference calls. Like the rest of the city, they were taken aback at the ferociousness of the snow and wind. At 11 a.m., the call came down: Go to Plan 4.
But even with the new urgency, the agency was facing hard choices. Hundreds of its buses were already coursing through the city, and many of its more vulnerable subway lines had passengers on them.
Jay H. Walder, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent agency of New York City Transit, cut short a family trip and was at his desk by Sunday afternoon, trying to figure out a way forward: should the agency cut service and simply strand New Yorkers? Mr. Walder, in a memorandum he wrote later, said the agency tried to “find the right medium.”
By Monday morning, there were reports of hundreds of buses trapped in unplowed streets. Hundreds of passengers on subway trains that lost power were trapped for hours overnight. Entire swaths of subway lines were knocked out by huge snowdrifts — the exact lines that the winter planning manual warned were “most vulnerable to service disruptions” in a fierce storm.
Mr. Walder has pledged a full formal review. “In the coming weeks,” he wrote in the memorandum, “we will reflect and look to make improvements for the future.”
For years, an integral role in the city’s best blizzard response plans was filled not by municipal workers but by private contractors and construction crews, ready with front-end loaders, tow trucks, pickup trucks and Bobcat vehicles that can move snow from the tightest urban grids.
Yet as the blizzard approached, the first calls from city officials for help went out around 9 a.m. on Sunday — nearly 30 hours after the Weather Service had raised its warning to a winter storm watch, and more than 24 hours after Mr. Doherty, the veteran sanitation commissioner, sensed that a blizzard was well on its way, he said.
Roughly seven hours later, at about 3:45 p.m. on Sunday, Mr. Doherty was facing television cameras in a chilly sanitation garage in Lower Manhattan. Dusk was coming; the snow, falling since morning, was mounting; and the city was now openly pleading for help from private equipment operators.
“They can call 311 to find out where they can get registered and where to report,” Mr. Doherty said at that time.
Help did not arrive in adequate enough numbers or in nearly enough time. And the resulting failure to clear the city’s side streets, even 48 hours after the first significant accumulations, became the storm’s signature outrage.
“If we had the private industry and the front-end loaders early, come in, it would have been a big help, no question about it,” Mr. Doherty said in an interview on Wednesday. “It is a problem.”
The problem, he said, rested largely with him. He said he might have taken too long to make the first calls for private help. He said he had become too consumed with deploying thousands of his own workers.
“Why did we wait so long?” he asked. “Well, maybe that is something we have to look at, no questions about it.”
There are, though, an array of questions about the system for soliciting private assistance. The city’s list of reliable, proven, untainted businesses has shrunk. Any new volunteers have to be vetted; it can take 12 hours to get them rolling.
Unlike years ago, Mr. Doherty said, the private workers just do not seem “interested in the work anymore.”
“Are we paying enough?” he said. “It may be the reason.”
In fact, it seems that some of the more proven contractors had been signed up by the local airports before the city made its appeal.
By Tuesday night, the city had had some success recruiting help. The Sanitation Department had 59 pieces of hired equipment, including 29 front-end loaders, 19 tow trucks and 6 Bobcats and excavators.
Still, Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, said the problems late Sunday underscored how the city could not rely on outside contractors to help with snow removal and other jobs in such storms, particularly during a holiday weekend.
“You can never count on the privates, because they don’t have to show up,” he said. “What obligation do they have? The mayor can’t order them out. The commissioner can’t order them out.”