The Blizzard Cleanup: What Went Wrong

A series of too-late decisions to upgrade the city’s emergency response to this weekend’s blizzard resulted in the transit disasters that overwhelmed the city and left some residents hurt or even dead after help was unable to arrive. Both the Daily News and the Times have lengthy postmortems of City Hall’s response to the storm, and each are damning of the mayor and his team’s decision-making. And the Post claims that not only were many of the problems accidental, but also that some sanitation workers did lousy cleanup work on purpose, to punish the mayor for budget cutbacks and low overtime pay.

The primary problem seems to be that the city didn’t declare a snow emergency until Sunday morning, even though the winter-storm watch had been raised by the National Weather Center in the early morning the day before. This meant that New Yorkers were allowed to continue to park their cars on the street — a big problem when it came to plowing later. Sanitation Department vehicles must move much more slowly and inefficiently when having to avoid snowed-in cars. Because the city initially selected the lowest level of weather response, buses continued operating (and without tire chains) — a decision that left nearly a thousand stranded by the end of the storm, blocking streets and intersections all across the city. And the city called for help too late: By the time the Sanitation Department called for help from outside workers — a standard part of the city’s response to major snowstorms — it was Sunday at 8 a.m. The worst of the storm was mere hours away, and at that point it was impossible to gather the necessary support.

There were a smattering of other personnel problems, too: Nearly 100 sanitation drivers were rookies, receiving their training on the job on Sunday. The deputy mayor in charge of snow response, Stephen Goldsmith, was out of town in D.C. for the holiday. City officials, including Mayor Bloomberg, didn’t stress soon enough or loudly enough that 911 should be used only for extreme emergencies. (This resulted in a backlog of calls that was over a thousand people along at some points. In total, the nearly 50,000 calls to 911 fell just 6,000 short of what the line received on September 11, 2001.) Private workers didn’t seem that interested in showing up to work, perhaps because they weren’t being paid enough by the city.

And then there’s the Post’s claim that some sanitation employees were told by bosses to do shoddy or slow work to protest budget cuts. “They sent a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues are more important,” City Councilman Dan Halloran told the tabloid, after meeting with three plow workers who admitted to the plot. From the Post:

They were told [by supervisors] to take off routes [and] not do the plowing of some of the major arteries in a timely manner. They were told to make the mayor pay for the layoffs, the reductions in rank for the supervisors, shrinking the rolls of the rank-and-file.”

So … Merry Christmas?

Sanitation Department’s slow snow clean-up was a budget protest [NYP]
Blizzard of 2010: Forecasts were fuzzy, buses were bungled, plows were pathetic & mayor was missing [NYDN]
Inaction and Delays by New York as Storm Bore Down [NYT]

The Blizzard Cleanup: What Went Wrong