Monday, January 10, 2011

New York City Council To Grill City Officials on Inadequate Snowstorm Response

The City Council will be holding public hearings today to attempt to get to the bottom of why the City did such a poor job in clearing snow during the Boxing Day blizzard and its aftermath. The snowpocalypse was incredible by city standards, because snow emergency routes were not cleared of snow or vehicles, and secondary and tertiary routes were impassible for days following the blizzard despite claims from city officials that the situation was well in hand.

Among the key issues that will be discusses is how and why city officials chose not to make a snow emergency declaration, which would have assisted the Sanitation Department in clearing the 250+ snow emergency routes through the city and accelerated clearing those secondary and tertiary routes.

Separately, four separate investigations by prosecutors are looking into claims that there was a work slowdown, sickout, or other work action that reduced the Sanitation Department's response.

For me, the inadequate response arose precisely because a snow emergency declaration was not issued and the MTA similarly failed to take its preparations up to the maximum level and put lives at risk by sending out buses and trains without adequate equipment, which eventually shut down the entire city's bus and subway system because equipment was snowed in.

The webcast of the hearings can be viewed here.

Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith has been on the hook for the city's poor response because he was brought in to deal with logistics and operations. Under questioning, Goldsmith admits that the city screwed up and provided an outline of how the city will do things going forward:
As City Council members pounded the administration with questions, Mr. Goldsmith, who is in charge of operations, acknowledged that the chain of command was murky; that the failure to declare a state of emergency hampered the response; that city workers were not deployed adequately and private contractors should have been called in; and that officials waited too long to plan for the storm.

“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,” Mr. Goldsmith said.

In the midst of the hearing, the Bloomberg administration released a 15-point plan of action [pdf] to prevent future missteps. The plan, as explained by Mr. Goldsmith and included in a news release, is heavy on logistics, but includes pledges to rewrite the process for declaring emergencies; equip every sanitation truck with a GPS device; improve communications; and create a Web site to provide real-time weather updates.
What's interesting is that the plan of action notes that a majority of Sanitation Department trucks lack 2-way radios, and those that do are all operating on the same frequency, which makes for problems that harken back to the dark days after 9/11 when it became clear that the emergency response was hampered by inadequate communications by and between the FDNY and NYPD. Moreover, the City has to do a better job in high volume emergency events as the 911/311 systems were overwhelmed with calls.

A huge problem with the snowstorm was a failure to communicate and a disconnect between what the Mayor's office and officials were saying and the facts on the ground in the outer boroughs where snow simply wasn't being cleared from the streets in anything resembling an orderly fashion. Adjusting the snow emergency protocols is a good first step, as is improving communications response.

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