For Bloomberg, Much at Stake as Irene Approached

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    NEWSLETTERS

    New Yorkers have a lot to say when it comes to grading Mayor Bloomberg's response to Irene compared to his response to that crippling blizzard earlier this year. Melissa Russo reports. (Published Monday, Aug 29, 2011)

    A few drops of rain fell early Saturday morning as Mayor Michael Bloomberg was about to talk to reporters about the encroaching Hurricane Irene. A staffer said the news conference was being moved under a nearby overhang, but somehow that never happened.

    After examining some flat-bottomed NYPD boats with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the mayor stood in the open to deliver his remarks. He barely blinked as the rain began falling harder, and spoke in a steady voice as it soaked his button-down shirt.

    "Heed the warnings," Bloomberg said as he urged that residents evacuate. "It isn't cute to say, 'I'm tougher than any storm.' ... I hope this is not necessary, but it's certainly prudent."

    Eight months after New Yorkers blamed him for the city's slow response to a paralyzing blizzard, Bloomberg hammered home the fact that he was taking Irene seriously. He made an expensive, inconvenient and politically risky call, ordering 370,000 people to leave their homes in low-lying areas. And after the city ended up not seeing the urban nightmare he had warned about, he made no apologies.

    "We were just unwilling to risk the life of a single New Yorker," he said Sunday, after a night he said was spent getting up to look out the window at the storm and ultimately feeling relief as he realized the city had been largely spared. "I don't know whether because of our decisions nobody died ... or maybe it was just luck. But the bottom line is, I would make the same decisions again without hesitation."

    Irene caused damage from North Carolina to Vermont and left more than 20 people dead. In New York City, there were downed trees, flooding and some power outages, but no deaths and no injuries as of Sunday night.

    Some New Yorkers complained that the hurricane — actually a tropical storm when it reached the city — had been overblown, but many others praised Bloomberg.

    "You can't take the chance," said Shafqat Ullah, back behind the wheel of his cab after riding out the storm with no incident at his Brooklyn home. "The city or other management is not controlling it. It's nature. You can't fight with nature."

    Sara Daver, who evacuated her financial district apartment during the storm, said she thought Bloomberg had been savvy and justified.

    "If I was in his situation, I'd rather do too much than do too little," she said. "If something bad had happened, it would have all been his fault."

    If many New Yorkers share that view, Bloomberg may enjoy a political rebound as he nears a decade in City Hall. In recent months, voters have criticized him on a number of issues, including his treatment of New York's public schools and his handling of a tight city budget — a signature issue. He spent more than $5 million of his own money on campaign-style ads promoting his agenda without seeing any significant change in his sagging approval numbers.

    And much voter ire focused on the December blizzard, which jammed the city's streets for days, overloaded emergency phone lines and left ambulances unable to reach some who needed help. Bloomberg ultimately agreed that his administration's response was "inadequate and unacceptable."

    It's been widely reported that the billionaire mayor, who has a home in Bermuda, was away during the winter storm. This time he was very much in town, suffering through the weather with fellow New Yorkers.

    "I think Mayor Bloomberg screwed up around Christmas time when he made his mistake with the snowstorm," 68-year-old John Sullivan said as the storm approached. "Now he's doubling down with this one."

    Bloomberg as well as his staff insist his decisions on the hurricane had nothing to do with the blizzard.

    There was far less warning ahead of the blizzard, Loeser said. And the logistics involved in getting the word out for an evacuation are utterly different than for a snowfall that requires little to no action from the public.

    Bloomberg's staff recount a deadly serious few days in the run-up to Irene in which the third-term mayor focused on quizzing commissioners on numbers and asking probing questions before making decision after decision that would allow the city to execute its longstanding hurricane plan — prepared five years ago in the hopes that officials wouldn't be scrambling to hash out details in a crisis.

    The businesslike approach, said mayor's spokesman Stu Loeser, was classic Mike Bloomberg. But the founder of financial information company Bloomberg LP also did something as the storm approached that he almost never does: After each hurricane briefing, the mayor went to the downstairs City Hall room housing his speechwriters and dictated the words he would use to inform the public — then remained there to edit the speech, Loeser said.

    The amount of energy Bloomberg had put into preparing for the storm was evident by 10 p.m. Saturday as the first of Irene's serious effects hit the city. Bloomberg returned to the emergency center briefing room, wearing a different shirt than in his morning appearance in the rain.

    The 69-year-old mayor was transformed from his usual self. He had bags under his eyes, which were rimmed with red. His hands gripped the side of the podium. He stumbled over his words as he delivered part of his statement in his heavily accented Spanish.

    The storm is here, he said. It's too late to get out of its way. Better just to ride it out.

    And he reminded his constituents, "We are all together in this."