City officials admitted Monday that they should have called some type of emergency while fighting last month's paralyzing blizzard and also blamed a host of other mistakes in apologizing for the sluggish pace of snow removal.
“We owe you and all New Yorkers for that lack of performance our administration’s apology and my personal promise not to let it happen again,” said Deputy Mayor of Operations Stephen Goldsmith, who oversees snow operations.
In a public grilling before the City Council, Goldsmith and key commissioners outlined a series of Administration errors like having poor communications with plow trucks, failing to hire enough private snow removers and waiting too long to marshal emergency resources. They also detailed reforms designed never to repeat their admittedly "unacceptable" response to the Christmas weekend storm that socked the city with more than 20 inches of snow, burying streets in the outer boroughs for days.
“They cleaned the bike lanes in Manhattan before they got to Brooklyn,” said Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron.
Union officials for Sanitation workers and first responders also blasted the city for failing to declare a snow emergency which would have kept drivers off the roads, saying that doomed the fight from the start, as stuck vehicles made plowing impossible on many streets.
"Once you re fighting a blizzard at three inches an hour and you're not continually hitting the streets, you lost it," said Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association, who also blamed manpower shortages and budget cuts but didn't have figures to back up his claims.
This hearing avoided allegations of a Sanitation worker slowdown during the blizzard, saying that issue is being investigated by other agencies. Nespoli, who has denied any labor action, said his workers are being unfairly blamed for the debacle when they worked their hearts out.
"My workforce is hurting, their morale is down," he said. "People are saying things to them they've never heard before. It's not right."
Schedule of upcoming hearings
Patrick Bahnken, head of the EMTS and paramedics union, mocked the indecision of city officials in reading the storm, saying it "did not sneak up on us' since even the National Football League knew to postpone the Eagles game when the system hit Philadelphia.
Bahnken sarcastically suggesting buying city officials "a magic 8 Ball, because you couldn't do worse."
Goldsmith also fell on the sword by saying that he and other officials failed to give Mayor Michael Bloomberg "the information he deserved" about the impending storm when he was apparently out of town during the holiday weekend.
"That was my mistake and others," said Goldsmith, who himself was also away that weekend, in his Washington DC townhouse.
Officials didn't call a snow emergency, last declared in 2005, fearing that would just bring more traffic onto clogged streets by forcing motorists to move their cars, Goldsmith said. That reasoning drew some push back by Queens City councilman Peter Vallone Jr.
"I think those reasons are preposterous," he said, arguing that if the emergency was called early enough, the feared congestion wouldn't have materialized at the blizzard's height.
In hindsight, Goldsmith said that calling an emergency would have kept more motorists off the road and acted as "a catalyst" to the public and city agencies to treat the storm more seriously. A snow emergency bans private vehicles without snow tires or chains from designated snow routes and also forbids parking along those routes.
"An emergency declaration of some sort could have been helpful," said Goldsmith.
With another major snow storm on the horizon, expected to hit Tuesday night, city Councilors took aim at Goldsmith and the commissioners of Sanitation, Fire and Emergency Management for failing to anticipate the blizzard's power and then leaving major swaths of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island unplowed for days.
Alluding to the vacuum of power, Brooklyn City Councilman Jumaane Williams, whose district was hard hit, asked "who was responsible for the minute to minute decisions that needed to be made when the mayor was out of town?" The answer from Goldsmith: the individual commissioners were responsible for their agencies.
Goldsmith outlined several snow reforms, including: establishing a formal protocol for assessing snow emergencies, finding a new type of snow chain for ambulances, equipping all Sanitation trucks with global positioning devices and two-way radios, speeding the hiring of Private contractors and creating a new weather feature on the city's website to receive citizen complaints and display real time photos and video of storms.
The 15-point Action Plan to address these problems will:
- Improve the process for declaring emergencies;
- Provide a broader range of options that could be part of an emergency declaration and make them clear and understandable to New Yorkers;
- Equip every Department of Sanitation truck with a GPS device enabled with two-way communication;
- Improve accountability tools and plowing definitions used by Sanitation for street conditions;
- Use live monitors (SCOUT) to stream video of trouble spots;
- Enhance immediate availability of critical equipment;
- Enhance ability to deploy City employees from other departments;
- Enhance the Emergency Operations Center as the center of resource coordination;
- Improve tow truck deployment;
- Secure and expeditiously deploy private contractors for assistance;
- Improve the process of hiring additional laborers;
- Improve two-way communications through real time portal;
- Provide better methods for citizens to request help;
- Reform dispatch protocols in extreme and high volume events;
- Accelerate PSAC integration and implementation.
The source of ire for many, the botched response also became a source of humor, with "Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armison offering a clever spoof of the snowpocalyse in a parody of Bloomberg over the weekend.