Thursday, January 13, 2011

Council Blasts Mayor on Blizzard Response

By Jason Barczy

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration reversed course, admitting to and apologizing for a systematic failure of the city’s response to the blizzard two weeks ago.

The City Council held an oversight hearing on the city’s response on Monday, the first of seven, in which Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith called the city’s response unacceptable and said the city failed in declaring a snow emergency.

“We didn’t do the job you expected,” Goldsmith said. “We didn’t do the job that residents of New York City expected. There were a lot of mistakes made. We acknowledge those and we’re here to learn from those.”

Goldsmith, along with Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Commissioner Joseph Bruno, Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano gave testimony and answered questions from City Council members during the four-hour long hearing.

Goldsmith said neither he nor Bloomberg were consulted by the commissioners about calling a snow emergency that would have gotten cars off main roads and cleared snow routes for plows and emergency vehicles.

“There was a clear lack of communication between different city agencies and a clear lack of response to the state of emergency that we had on our hands,” said City Council member Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village). “Even though it was a holiday weekend and maybe the commissioners and deputy mayors may have been in a ‘holi-daze’, our city doesn’t sleep, it always moves and keeps moving.”

Several mistakes were admitted at the hearing: Half the city’s snowplows had no radios to call for help when they became stuck; the city never activated the Parks Department, which had workers and gear available to clear snow; no official reached out to owners of private tow trucks and other equipment to strengthen the city’s own fleet until after the storm was out of control; New Yorkers volunteering for temporary snow clearing jobs were discouraged because the city couldn’t pay them for six to 12 weeks; and officials waited too long to address scores of ambulances stuck in the snow.

City Council member Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) asked Goldsmith how it was possible he was able to keep his job when Emergency Management Services Chief John Perrugia was demoted—the only one to be demoted, in fact.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn drilled into Bruno for not opening OEM headquarters until 4 p.m. on Dec. 26, an hour before the storm was set to hit the city.

Bruno responded that opening the offices earlier wouldn’t have made a significant difference but said, “The city’s response to the blizzard did not live up to the standards we set for ourselves and the standards the public expects and deserve.”

Queens saw between 16 and 20 inches of snowfall between December 26 and 27 and most streets weren’t plowed until Thursday, December 30. South Brooklyn and Staten Island were hit hardest, with some areas reporting up to 27 inches of snowfall.

Sanitation Department records show that by 4 a.m. Monday, December 27, all of Manhattan’s primary streets and 92 percent of its secondary streets were plowed. The same records show in western Queens all primary streets were plowed by 4 a.m. Tuesday, December 28, but just 47 percent of secondary streets were plowed.

“Our cleanup response was unacceptable,” Doherty said. “We recognize we did not perform up to the standard that met the publics (standards), which caused many hardships. We know the reputation as the best snow fighters has been called into question and we must work to prove we deserve this distinction.”

Allegations of a sanitation slowdown protesting lay-offs and budget cuts were not addressed. Quinn and Sanitation Committee Chairwoman Letitia James (D-Brooklyn) did not permit the discussion because a criminal investigation is pending. However, that did not stop Crowley from bringing up the budget concerns.

“Did budgetary concerns impact the way the city responded to this storm?” she asked Goldsmith. Crowley said residents thought sanitation workers were left home because the city did not want to pay double time during the holiday weekend.

Goldsmith said budgetary concerns were not a factor in the city’s blizzard cleanup, and in prepared testimony presented a 15-point plan to the City Council for improving the city’s response that included changes to how the city declares a snow emergency.

The plan included having all sanitation trucks outfitted with GPS devices with buttons for instant communication and ambulances equipped with sled-gurneys so patients can be transported over snowy grounds.

A hearing in Queens is scheduled for 12 p.m. Friday, January 21 at Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens.

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