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Contrasting Blizzard Responses of N.J., NYC Examined

December 29, 2010 at 3:10 PM EDT
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New York, the nation's biggest city, is still grappling with a weekend blizzard that shut down its main airports and dumped an estimated two feet of snow on streets, creating a maze of stranded vehicles and raising ire among some residents about the speed of the city's response. Ray Suarez speaks with Bob Hennelly of WNYC Radio.

RAY SUAREZ: The nation’s largest city faced another day in the throes of snow, as crews labored to clear the streets. There were calls for and promises of investigations into the aftermath of the Christmas weekend blizzard.

WOMAN: It’s terrible, absolutely terrible.

RAY SUAREZ: Three days on, and New York streets were still littered with nearly two feet of snow, while people tried to dig out cars, and patience wore thin.

QUESTION: You’re going to clean the middle of 36th Street?

MAN: Yes. Yes, I have to.

QUESTION: How come you have to?

MAN: Because who’s going do it?

RAY SUAREZ: On block after block, abandoned cars clogged streets, making snow removal all but impossible. The Sunday storm also trapped 600 city buses. Most were dug out, but at least 50 remained trapped today on unplowed roads. Scores of ambulances and other emergency vehicles also got stuck trying to answer 911 calls.

MAN: You can’t get down that street. You see, you can’t get down there, nobody.

RAY SUAREZ: Even snow plows were left with wheels spinning in the storm’s wake.

MAN: What are you doing?

RAY SUAREZ: The most notorious incident appeared in this video posted online. It showed a city crew crashing into parked cars in a bid to free a construction vehicle.

The blizzard may have been one of the worst in the city’s history, but that did little to calm the criticism, from local political leaders…

MARTY MARKOWITZ, president, Brooklyn: This was a — a royal screw-up, to use the current terms.

RAY SUAREZ: … to the man on the street.

MAN: Mayor, wear my shoes. Wear my shoes and try to walk down here and do my job.

RAY SUAREZ: The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was a principal target for frustrated New Yorkers, especially after he defended the city’s response Tuesday.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), mayor, New York City: We won’t get to everybody every time. We will make mistakes. But we have to continue plugging ahead. Yelling about it and complaining doesn’t help.

RAY SUAREZ: That assessment brought quick rebukes, even from members of the city council.

PETER VALLONE JR., city council member, New York: The mayor needs to stop acting like Baghdad Bob and saying everything’s OK. We can see with our own eyes, it’s not OK.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, at a hardware store in the Bronx, it was a more contrite mayor who spoke to reporters.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: We take our emergency, lifesaving responsibilities very seriously. And I’m extremely dissatisfied with the way our emergency response systems performed. And, as I announced yesterday, we’re going to take a look at everything we did to see if it could be done better.

We did not do as good a job as we wanted to do or as the city has a right to expect.

RAY SUAREZ: In the meantime, all runways were finally open at the three major airports serving the New York area. But officials cautioned again it could take days to accommodate thousands of passengers stranded nationwide. And the city of New York now says most streets should be plowed by tomorrow morning.

For more on how the city is bearing up, we turn to Bob Hennelly, senior reporter at WNYC Public Radio.

And, Bob, it’s evening of the third full day. Are 8.5 million people a little closer to getting back to normal life?

BOB HENNELLY, WNYC Public Radio: Indeed they are.

We’re down to just 50 of those some 600 buses that were jammed up. What’s interesting, though, is to contrast the state of New Jersey’s response, it was the same storm, but two very different takes with two different results.

Their acting governor, Steve Sweeney, called a state — or declared a state of emergency at 6:00 p.m. the night before. That would be Sunday. That gave him the power to keep cars and vehicles off the road.

RAY SUAREZ: An interesting contrast with New Jersey.

What about inside the city itself? It’s five counties, over 300 square miles. Were some places affected worse than others?

BOB HENNELLY: Well, right now, as we speak, we have situations in the South Brooklyn area, also Staten Island, Western Queens, particularly places, right, where we see that people don’t have mass transit.

You know, New York City is not all integrated with subways and buses, so people are, almost a suburban existence, dependent on their car.

The other thing was, what we learned is the 911 system was really overwhelmed. This is a critical piece of information. You know, we had some 50,000 calls on Monday. Only one in five, according to police, were actually emergencies, compared to, say, 55,000 on September 11.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how about now? If you feel a serious illness coming on this evening, and you make a 911 call, and you are on an outer borough side street, is somebody going to be able to get to you?

BOB HENNELLY: I think they’re in much better shape now.

The critical thing is people who — with kidney dialysis who have a daily relationship with a hospital, that’s where really neighborhood connection matters.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the mayor? His change in tone was striking today, from a kind of can-do and upbeat message to the city early on to a more somber one today, wasn’t it?

BOB HENNELLY: I think it has to do with situational awareness and to the degree to which middle management was getting to him information about facts on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, so, what’s changed there? Are the police in evidence? Can they get to calls? Are sanitation workers in evidence on the streets?

BOB HENNELLY: Absolutely. But we do have tabloid press here, so we had graphic pictures that showed the degree to which the city was hamstrung throughout all five boroughs. So, that was very vivid for the mayor.

RAY SUAREZ: Mayors don’t control the weather, but they do control the response to the weather. Is a lot of the criticism being centered on the mayor this evening?

BOB HENNELLY: I think so.

It’s a question of managing expectations. And, historically, throughout his two terms, he has delivered on these expectations. And perhaps the question is, had he told people to — been more adamant — he did tell people to stay off the roads — but said, listen, this is life-threatening, perhaps even if Governor Paterson had joined him.

You know, in the past, this has been a method to drive home to people the seriousness of the storm that we face.

RAY SUAREZ: What about it coming during this particular week? Were a lot of people off, a lot of people away? Because this blizzard hit on a Sunday after a national holiday, was the city sort of in a standing-down posture when it came?

BOB HENNELLY: No, what it was is, people are trying to get back home from the holiday to get back to work on Monday. So, that did add to this problem.

RAY SUAREZ: OK. Thanks for joining us, Bob Hennelly from WNYC.