Thursday, December 30, 2010

Decisions By Mayor, Top Staffers, and MTA Led To Failures During Boxing Day Blizzard

The post mortems are starting to roll in and it doesn't look good for the Bloomberg Administration or the MTA. Both failed in a spectacular fashion to prepare and gear up for one of the worst snowstorms to hit the New York metro area in history.

Unlike the video's assertions, the key difference is that the snow emergency was never declared that would have kept the key arterial roads clear of traffic - or at a minimum vastly reduced the amount of traffic. Once people understood the severity of the oncoming storm, they would have taken the necessary precautions.

The first and worst decision was for the Mayor to not declare a snow emergency, which would have prevented the kinds of apocalyptic scenes witnessed across the city on snow emergency routes that were clogged with all kinds of stranded vehicles. The snow emergency would have meant that all such traffic was off those roads unless the vehicles were equipped with tire chains or snow tires.

By failing to make that call, Mayor Bloomberg set back the Sanitation Department's efforts considerably since they couldn't effectively plow those arterial routes, preventing them from even getting onto the secondary and tertiary streets.

It took several days before Mayor Bloomberg would admit that there were serious problems. His nonchalance on Monday was breathtaking in its dissociation with the facts on the ground and that the outer boroughs were facing a health and safety crisis because roads were impassible.

The New York Times has presented an early review of the storm response, and the Mayor's office, his top officials and the MTA failed to enact snow emergency and contingency plans for severe snowstorms that would have prepositioned equipment and prevented the kind of catastrophic meltdown of the transportation system. That's inexcusable.
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 MTA dropped the ball as well, as it refused to implement its major contingency plan until it was too late. By the time the call was made, getting adequate staffing to make a difference was impossible because people simply couldn't get around to where they needed to be.
As the Daily News has reported, the authority's efforts were hampered by a manpower shortage due in part to holiday vacations. Some workers who were off couldn't make it in because of impassable roads, officials said.

Whatever the reason, several diesel locomotives that don't require third-rail electricity - valuable equipment in keeping the rails clear and rescuing stranded passengers - were stuck in outer-borough railyards, sources said.

In one instance, a diesel was deployed on the Nos. 2 and 5 lines in the Bronx and should have run throughout the storm, said the NYC Transit manager, who is directly involved in train operations.

Instead, it returned to the yard, apparently for a crew change, but no one was there to take over, and it got snowed in, he said.

Another diesel locomotive never made it out of the same yard, the manager said. And one of the giant snow-thrower trains - capable of removing several tons of snow an hour - also sat idle for at least part of the blizzard, according to the manager.

In another lapse, some portable heating devices didn't work, he said.

A longtime motorman assigned to another yard said it took hours for workers to dig out and put ice-scraping "shoes" on a locomotive used to clear tracks in the yard, he said.

The Daily News reports that the Sanitation Department was understaffed because of the Christmas holiday and that some of its plow drivers weren't prepared for the task at hand.

Meanwhile, the NY Post is reporting that the Sanitation Department's response was due to a work action by sanitation workers angry over budget cuts and a 5% workforce reduction. Some workers quoted by the Post claimed that they were told to keep the plow blades higher than grade level so that streets would require additional passes, and even skipping streets to pad overtime:
The snitches "didn't want to be identified because they were afraid of retaliation," Halloran said. "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."

New York's Strongest used a variety of tactics to drag out the plowing process -- and pad overtime checks -- which included keeping plows slightly higher than the roadways and skipping over streets along their routes, the sources said.

The snow-removal snitches said they were told to keep their plows off most streets and to wait for orders before attacking the accumulating piles of snow.

But multiple Sanitation Department sources told The Post yesterday that angry plow drivers have only been clearing streets assigned to them even if that means they have to drive through snowed-in roads with their plows raised.

And they are keeping their plow blades unusually high, making it necessary for them to have to run extra passes, adding time and extra pay.

One mechanic said some drivers are purposely smashing plows and salt spreaders to further stall the cleanup effort.
If those reports can be substantiated, then union officials and those involved in the decision for a slowdown should face criminal charges for the deaths attributed to impassible roads - and there are several.

Union officials have been calling such claims nonsense, and with good reason. If these reports were true, the union faces a huge backlash from the public who has seen nothing but stranded vehicles and unplowed roads days after the blizzard struck.

In the end, the city's response was wholly inadequate and put the public at risk because of a failure to declare a snow emergency and enact plans designed to minimize the disruptions to the transportation systems throughout the City.

Apologies wont be enough this time. I expect to see increased calls for the resignation of both the Sanitation Commissioner and Transportation Commissioner in coming days.

It's about priorities. For whatever reason, it was more important to get bike lanes cleared than to get the roads cleared - including the aforementioned Ocean Parkway? Now, the bike lane that Rep. Greenfield refers to is also a pedestrian walkway and the Parks Department is responsible for clearing those paths, but that's resources that could have been devoted to assisting in street and crossing clearance.

The following video shows the craziness on Ocean Parkway yesterday.

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