New York Has Become Really Good at Dealing With Emergencies

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Bloomberg at a shelter at Seward Park High School yesterday. Photo: Louis Lanzano/AP/Corbis

Near the end of a press conference on Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg turned to look at the city's police and fire commissioners, part of the group of administrators arrayed like a grim-faced chorus behind him. "Our city agencies get tested every day," the mayor said. "The fire department responds a couple thousand times a day, they and the police department together. Do they work together? Yeah, because they have so much practice."

New York is indeed an ongoing, never-ending emergency, and during the past five days that experience has proven invaluable. This is cold comfort if you're currently powerless in Tribeca or bailing water in Red Hook. But the city and state's official response to Hurricane Sandy has, so far, been exemplary. The warnings from Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo came early and often, using everything from bullhorns to Twitter, and were delivered sternly but without the belligerence of New Jersey's Chris Christie. The serial decisions to shut roads and transit systems appeared prudent without being panicky (Cuomo's closing of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel on Monday afternoon, hours before it flooded, turned out to look particularly prescient). Thousands of city workers, from the school teachers voluntarily staffing shelters to the firefighters battling a massive blaze in Breezy Point, did their jobs professionally.

This hasn't always been the case, unfortunately, but New York seems to have learned painful lessons from the series of extraordinary disasters that have hit the city and state. Beginning with the September 11 attacks, then the 2010 blizzard, and continuing through last August's reaction to Hurricane Irene, our politicians and first-responders have become highly skilled in coping with major calamities. The 2010 post-Christmas blizzard breakdown, where buses and subways were stranded, is the clear precedent for the MTA's preemptive shutdown strategy; only the next few days and weeks will show whether it avoided worse damage to the transit system, but for now it had the significant benefit of keeping passengers out of harm's way. The Irene evacuation, derided by many at the time as an overreaction, now looks like an important test run, particularly for the city's housing projects. 

Things certainly weren't perfect — 311 was overwhelmed with calls, and the reasons for the crane collapse at the One57 construction site need to be investigated. The larger problem is whether responding to giant natural disasters becomes frighteningly routine. At that same briefing a reporter asked Bloomberg whether the hurricane was making the recent boom in waterfront development look foolish. The mayor basically brushed off the criticism with a bit of curious free-market analysis — "People pay more, generally, to live closer to the water, even though you could argue that they should pay less because it's more dangerous" — but City Council Speaker Chris Quinn jumped in to defend building codes. "We have made significant changes in the requirements of how we build in lower-lying area," she insisted. "No one has a better, tighter code than we do now." That may be true. Today, though, Bloomberg acknowledged the increasing severity of the storms hitting the city, and wondered out loud whether global warming is the cause. One year from now the city will elect a new mayor. For all the other issues the campaign will raise, keeping the city safe will be central — and Hurricane Sandy has been a reminder that Bloomberg will be a tough act to follow.