Thursday, March 5, 2009

City Begins Digging Out from Storm

Mayor Criticized for Comments About School Closure

By Conor Greene

With temperatures expected to reach the 50’s by the weekend, much of the snow and ice dumped on the city during Monday will soon melt away, but not before crippling much of the city and forcing officials to close public schools for the first time in five years.

Much of the city saw at least eight inches of snow overnight Sunday into Monday in what will surely be the winter season’s biggest storm. For the first time since January 2004, city officials decided to close public schools due to the inclement weather, and many side streets around Queens remained unplowed for several days.

At a briefing on the city’s efforts to clean up the city, Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that there are about 6,000 miles of roads within the five boroughs. “So to plow all our streets, just think about this, it’s like plowing from here to Los Angeles and back,” he told reporters at a press conference in Woodside. “It is really quite an amazing job the sanitation workers have to do.”

More than 3,000 sanitation workers worked Sunday night into Monday to clear streets, according to Sanitation Department Commissioner John Doherty, who recalled the storm of February 1969 when 15 inches of snow fell on the city. The mayor at the time, John Lindsay, came under heavy criticism after the storm left the city paralyzed for three days.

“I spent some time in Queens north, which some may remember in ’69 was a very sensitive area for the mayor at the time, and the areas looked pretty good,” said Doherty.

Post-storm cleanup generally costs about one million dollars per inch of snow, and while Mayor Bloomberg declined to say how much this storm will cost the cash strapped city, he said the city is still well within budget for this winter season. “For seven years, we have been clearing the streets every time there has been a snowstorm, whether it was an election year or not,” he said.

While the mayor isn’t taking much heat for the city’s response to the storm, he has come under fire for the Department of Education’s relatively late decision to cancel schools, which came at 5:39 a.m. As a result, some parents and students began their daily routine – with some even arriving at closed schools – before realizing that classes were canceled.

At his news briefing, Mayor Bloomberg had this to say about the decision: “I think if you got up this morning and looked outside and the question didn’t come right away, hmm, I wonder if school is going to be open today and you didn’t know enough to call 311, I would suggest another day in school is probably a good idea.”

The comment was immediately seized upon by City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who said that many parents were forced to scramble as a result of the “eleventh-hour” closing decision.

“Mike Bloomberg’s comments are extremely insulting to parents and demonstrate that he is completely out of touch with the average person,” said Avella in a statement. “Regardless of school closings, many parents still need to go to work and were forced to scramble to find child care. If DOE knew they were going to close the schools due to the inclement weather they needed to make the decision sooner and properly notify the parents.”

Avella, who is mounting a grassroots challenge to Mayor Bloomberg in November, said that New Yorkers “are sick and tired of Mike Bloomberg’s ‘just-deal-with-it’ attitude” and “deserves a mayor who realizes what the average person goes through on a daily basis.”

At the press conference, Bloomberg noted that a message notifying residents of the school closing was posted on the city’s 311 phone line, which received 140,000 calls by 10 a.m. Monday. He said that the late decision to close school was because officials waited to see if the storm would weaken or veer off course and miss the city.

The storm also caused some problems at The Shops at Atlas Park in Glendale on Tuesday afternoon, when melting ice chunks began falling from overhead awnings and roofs, according to a shopper. Security guards were forced to tape off several sidewalks in front of a number of businesses so that the ice could be safely removed.

In Forest Hills, Frank Gulluscio, district manager of Community Board 6, said his office didn’t receive any major complaints about lack of plowing or other issues. “They [Sanitation Department] were out doing a second phase [of cleanup] today and are salting the secondary streets today, along with the areas near fire hydrants, crosswalks and bus stops,” he said. “That’s the big thing for the everyday guy, to be able to cross the street or get to the bus stop.”

The storm caused the cancellation of about 450 flights out of LaGuardia, 119 at JFK International Airport and 335 at Newark Liberty International Airport, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The storm nearly matched the record for a one-day March snowfall in Manhattan, set when ten inches fell in 1898.

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