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How early warnings made the difference in blizzard of ‘16

The East Coast is still trying to recover from a major blizzard that dumped more than 2 feet of snow on Washington over the weekend. At least 37 people died in a storm that disrupted schools, businesses and the government. Judy Woodruff talks to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Christopher Geldart, emergency manager for the District of Columbia, about response and cleanup efforts in their cities.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    At least 37 are dead, business and government disrupted, uncounted tons of snow to remove. That was the tally today as the Eastern United States struggled to recover from a weekend walloping.

    The storm brought damage across the East Coast, and had many trying to dig out.

    With snowplows, shovels, and shoving, it was another long day of digging for millions of people and the first attempt at getting to work since the blizzard hit.

  • MAN:

    It's just really bad, really, really bad. I have never seen it like this before in a long, long time.

  • MAN:

    I didn't think it was going to be this bad. Like, no transportation? Really? Like, not everybody has a car.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For many, the wintry blast made for a three-day weekend, at least, with businesses shuttered and schools closed from Virginia to New Jersey.

    But, in New York, city buses, subways and commuter rail service moved toward restoring regular schedules. That permitted schools and Wall Street to reopen, despite the second largest snowfall ever recorded in the Big Apple.

  • MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO:

    If we had had 0.2 more inches at the Central Park monitoring station, we would have had literally the largest snow accumulation in the history of New York City.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mayor Bill de Blasio today praised the city's preparation and response.

  • MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO:

    We are so blessed to have the personnel, the training, the equipment that allows New York City to turn on a dime. And things are not entirely normal today, but a lot of the city is operating well, thanks to all of the people who work for the agencies representing — represented here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In nearby New Jersey, however, coastal dwellers assessed the damage after flooding compounded the storm's effect.

  • WOMAN:

    The damage was bad. There was more debris than there was from Sandy laying all over the streets.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Meanwhile, Philadelphia and Baltimore braced for longer cleanups from more snow than they have ever seen.

  • Philly Mayor Jim Kenney:

    MAYOR JIM KENNEY (D), Philadelphia: In one night, we received more — 18-some inches. It was the largest single snowfall in a 24-hour period. So, we do appreciate your patience. We're getting to your streets. We have to take care of the big ones first to get everything rolling. And then — that affects the most number of people. But we haven't forgotten you. And we are coming or we are already there.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, in Washington, D.C., where more than two feet of snow fell, government buildings remained closed today. And the U.S. House of Representatives announced all votes would be put off until next week. Limited bus and subway service resumed in the capital, but the push to clear buried side streets and entire neighborhoods throughout the capital region went on.

  • MAN:

    This is the worst I have ever seen in 25 years. The side streets are not cleaned, period. I mean, we — I haven't seen a plow on this block, I would say, since Friday. JUDY WOODRUFF: The city continued under a state of emergency, and Mayor Muriel Bowser cautioned it could take days to move all that snow.

    MAYOR MURIEL BOWSER (D), Washington, D.C.: We knew that we would have, with 24 inches of snow in the District and very cold temperatures throughout the week, several days of cleanup ahead of us. We know that we are going to be dealing with snow all of this week.

    It is important to note that the roads are still dangerous. We talked to you about the weather conditions. And it's getting warmer during the day and freezing at night, so any wet surfaces can become icy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Part of the nightmare left by the blizzard, nearly 12,000 flights were canceled over the weekend. And even as limited service resumed in Washington, New York and elsewhere, delays and more cancellations reverberated around the country.

    Still, the big blast of winter didn't stop people from looking for fun. In Washington, there was sledding down the snowbound steps of the Lincoln Memorial, kite-surfing on the National Mall. And kids and adults alike turned out for a massive snowball fight in one city square Sunday.

  • WOMAN:

    I have never been to like a citywide snowball fight, and this is fantastic. I'm absolutely loving it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Even the first dogs, Bo and Sunny, managed to enjoy a romp on the White House grounds.

    Standing by is the mayor of New York City, whose — whose city was hit as hard as any place by this storm.

    Mr. Mayor, thank you for joining us.

    Just how big is the challenge at this point?

    MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO , New York: Well, Judy, New York City is coming out of this pretty quick.

    We certainly have some parts of the five boroughs where we have more work to do in terms of some of our side streets and residential areas. But I think amazing work was done by our sanitation department getting out there right at the beginning of the storm with a huge amount of personnel and apparatuses out to deal with this.

    So, by the time we got to this morning rush hour, we were in pretty good shape here in New York City. We managed to have school open, not business as usual, but, by and large, the day went pretty smoothly.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There are news reports that have it that, even though the city has pretty much returned to normal, the borough of Queens had a tougher time.

    How do you — what is the distinction between places that have done well and others that have just taken longer?

  • MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO:

    Right.

    Well, look, we had a huge operation in Queens. We started with 850 plows, and we sent 70 more over from different parts of the city. As those other boroughs got more cleaned up, we sent additional personnel to help out Queens.

    A lot of narrow, small side streets in Queens. Queens got a little more snow than the rest of the city, in Central Park, just over 27 inches, out at JFK Airport, for example, 30.5 inches. So, that made it a little harder in some neighborhoods.

    Some parts of Queens actually were handled particularly well. Others, I think there were some challenges that we're going to look at when this is over and figure out if we have to make some adjustments.

    But the big story here, I think, is that, by and large, New Yorkers honored the travel ban that we put in place. And that was so important. We did that late morning Saturday. That got the roads essentially clear of vehicles, so our sanitation workers could really plow nonstop throughout the remainder of Saturday into Sunday.

    I think that is the number one reason why we got back and running so well. But we will figure out afterwards if we have to make some adjustments for the next one.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, that is what I wanted to ask you about, because there were clearly some decisions that were made early on that seemed to make a difference.

    What do you think the lessons are coming out of this? What do you see working and what might you do differently the next time?

  • MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO:

    First of all, I think we are in the age of extreme weather, whether we like it or not. This is obviously the result of global warming.

    We saw this — this was 0.2 inches away from being literally the biggest snowfall in the history of New York City since records were kept back in 1869 originally, with the same exact monitoring station in Central Park over almost 150 years. So, we have seen one of our biggest storms ever. We saw — last year, we were predicted to get another one like that ended up hitting Boston and areas to the east of us with outstanding force.

    So, we have got to get used to the fact that we will have these kind of blizzards. We saw very, very extreme hot temperatures in the summer, obviously, a few years ago, Hurricane Sandy, worst natural disaster this city has ever seen. So, something is going on. It's quite obvious. We're going to have to do more early presentation, more warning people to change their habits, to change their daily schedule when one of these things is going on.

    Travel bans are the kind of tool we will need to use, I think, from time to time in the future, because it works. And, then, again, we're going to figure out afterwards, where were some of the soft spots? Where were some of the areas we could have done better?

    But the real story here is, tell people early something very large is coming, you cannot do business as usual, change your plans, change your habits. That's our best chance of getting it right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Just very quickly, Mayor de Blasio, is an experience in a city like New York, is that transferable, translatable to other cities, or is every city facing a completely different set of circumstances

  • MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO:

    I wouldn't say completely different. I think we're — look, we have obviously a huge public work force and a lot of equipment. We have a blessing in that way.

    But I think what is universal among cities is communicating with our people, setting an expectation early on that we're going to need them to handle a storm a certain way. And I think, because of extreme weather in recent years, people are more receptive. If we tell them they need to evacuate or they need to do something differently, I think they hear it differently than even five or 10 years ago, when those extreme weather instances were much rarer.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, it's about communication and early action. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, we thank you. And good luck.

  • MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let's turn back to Washington, D.C., where the digging out and cleaning up is going a little more slowly. And there has been some frustration around the city.

    Christopher Geldart is the emergency manager for the District of Columbia. And he joins us from the Reeves Municipal Center in D.C.

    Mr. Geldart, thank you for being with us.

    I know these are two very different cities, but there are reports that D.C. has had a harder time getting on top of this storm. Is that true?

    CHRISTOPHER GELDART, Emergency Manager for the District of Columbia: Good evening, Judy.

    I don't know of those reports. And, to be quite honest, I have no idea what is going on in New York. We are extremely focused on the District here and what we need to do to get the District back in operating order and get people back to business and kids back to school.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How is it going? How would you describe the challenge?

  • CHRISTOPHER GELDART:

    You know, Judy, 24 inches of snow throughout the city, that's a challenge. That's — those are numbers that we haven't seen in one single falling since like 1922 in our Knickerbocker Storm. So it's very challenging. We have got a lot of volume to remove.

    You know, not — you can't just — in a city, you just can't push snow off on to the sides, because we don't have that kind of area. We actually have to pick it up. So, our main focus has been on cleaning our main arterials, on our secondary streets, and we have got those to 100 percent passability today. And now we're going to be focusing on really digging into our main areas where our residents are.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Do you have the resources you need?

  • CHRISTOPHER GELDART:

    You know, Judy, we have a whole lot of resources.

    We probably have about 35 to 40 percent more resources than we normally do at any given time. And, you know, we could always use more resources. Everybody could. And we're still looking for them. We have put a call out for some more resources today, especially in our removal areas, our backhoes and our Bobcats and dump trucks.

    So, we are continuously looking for more resources. But we're well into this, and our crews are working hard. Our men and women of our Department of Public Works, National Guard, Department of Transportation, the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, just all the agencies in the city have been really putting their back into it and getting the job done.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Are there steps that you now wish you could have taken ahead of time to make this easier at this point? And what are you telling residents in terms of getting all the streets cleared?

  • CHRISTOPHER GELDART:

    You know, Judy, I think we put our response in place. We had planned for this for several days as the storm came, as we became more and more clear that we were going to get this kind of storm.

    So, I think we were positioned where we needed to be in that sense. And, you know, basically, we're telling residents to — this is a big storm. We need them to clean their sidewalks and shovel those out. We're asking businesses to shovel in front of businesses. That's their responsibility. And we're taking care of the streets. And we just wants folks to be safe.

    The mayor just announced today schools will open on Wednesday, so another day that we want to make sure the students aren't walking in the street and being in harm's away. So we're taking the precautions we need to, and we're cleaning the city up like it needs to be.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Christopher Geldart, the director of the District of Columbia's Emergency Management Agency, we thank you.

  • CHRISTOPHER GELDART:

    Thank you, Judy.

    You can find more coverage of the storm and its aftermath on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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