Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

Storm Aftermath: A Whiff of Scandal in New York City

The inevitable political hearings into what went wrong with the botched cleanup from the blizzard which buried New York City last week under more than 20 inches of snow have yet to take place. Yet, the public has already heard enough to make up its mind about who is responsible for the mess that snarled the city for an unprecedented three days after the snow stopped falling. The immediate cause was a deliberate work slowdown and outright sabotage of the snow clearing effort by the city's Sanitation Department whose bosses were angry at the mayor for budget cutbacks which resulted in a 400-man workforce reduction, and the demotion of 100 department supervisors. But the underlying cause was less obvious and more disturbing – a lackadaisical attitude by the mayor as well as top city transit and sanitation officials. They chose to ignore early warnings from meteorologists that there was a significant chance the storm could cause a major disruption in the city. They were clearly hoping to get by with minimal storm preparations.

The weather bureau announced a winter storm watch 30 hours before the storm arrived. A full 18 hours before the snow started falling, the weather bureau issued a rare blizzard warning for the city, in a clear signal that this was to be weather event of historic proportions. Yet city officials failed to upgrade storm preparations, or to activate the emergency plans which had long been in place to deal with such emergencies.


For veteran New Yorkers, it was apparent even before the storm hit that the city was not taking it seriously. For many years, it had been standard practice for the city’s Sanitation Department to send out sand and salt spreaders in advance of an incoming storm. Their purpose was to keep the snow from sticking to the major streets when it first started falling. The sand would also help to prevent a dangerous layer of ice from forming on the surface, which would pose a major hazard to drivers and pedestrians, and make later cleanup efforts more difficult.


Savvy Brooklynites rushed to local stores early Sunday morning, December 26, a few hours before the first snowflakes fell, to top off their supplies of perishable food stuffs, sidewalk salts and shovels. But they saw no indication at that time that any of the boro’s major streets had been treated. On their way home from those stores, as the snow was already falling, they still saw no signs of city sanders or plows making an effort to get ahead of the accumulations.




That Sunday afternoon, weather forecasters were predicting an accumulation of 16 inches of snow or more, with high winds. However, the mayor, in a news conference with his top officials, seemed confident to the point of conceit that the situation was well in hand. He even suggested that those in Manhattan, which, once again, enjoyed the lion’s share of the city’s snow removal attention, take advantage of the cancellation of normal business to go see a Broadway show. He seemed unaware of the transportation disaster that was quickly developing on the streets of all 5 city boros, including Manhattan, and the total failure of his city agencies to deal with the rapidly worsening emergency.


One might argue the possibility that Bloomberg was totally unaware, and could not be held responsible, for the deliberate failure of city Sanitation Department workers to do their duty. How could he know that their supervisors and bosses, who were angry about the budget cutbacks, wanted to teach the mayor a lesson, at the expense of the city’s 8 million residents?


However, Bloomberg did have a clear responsibility to make sure that proper preparations for a storm of this magnitude had been ordered by his top city officials. It was this series of failures at the top levels of city government which turned a job action by Sanitation Department supervisors from an inconvenience into a full-scale emergency.




The angry supervisors were not responsible for the critical decision by city transit agency officials to leave idle subway trains out on elevated tracks where they could be buried in snow drifts and their equipment could freeze when the storm hit. The sanitation people are not the ones who sent the city’s buses out from their garages to get stuck on snow-clogged city streets, adding to the gridlock, and becoming significant obstacles to the belated street clearing efforts.


The angry union bosses also were not the ones who refused to declare a snow emergency during the 18 hours before the storm arrived when the weather bureau had a blizzard warning in effect for the city. That declaration would have required the clearing of the city’s “snow emergency” streets of all parked cars before they were snowed in, which would have greatly facilitated later cleanup efforts. The supervisors also were not responsible for the delay by the city in issuing a call to private contractors to bring in additional snow-removal equipment. That did not happen until after the main thoroughfares became impassable. By then it was too late, because the best of those contractors had already hired themselves out to area airports and other private parties willing to pay them handsomely to have their snow removed.


Finally, Sanitation Department bosses cannot be blamed for Bloomberg’s infuriatingly smug attitude at the growing plight of the millions of New Yorkers who found their lives being seriously disrupted, for several days, by his negligence and those of his top officials, in planning for and overseeing the snow cleanup effort.




Day after day, the mayor and his veteran Sanitation Department commissioner, John J. Doherty, promised increasingly angry city residents that the city snow plows were on their way and would begin digging out their own blocked side streets by the next morning, and day after day, that next morning came with a shockingly high number of those streets showing no sign that a snow plow had ever been there.


But what was even more surprising was that many of the city’s main avenues and through streets, which are normally the object of intensive efforts by the sanitation department to keep them clear or at least passable even during the height of the worst storms, quickly became iced over and a hazard even for vehicles and drivers used to traveling in difficult weather conditions. City buses, police cars, ambulances, and even snow plows, which usually can be counted on to keep moving during such storms quickly became part of the problem rather than the solution. Road conditions throughout the city were so bad that many of them became stuck, further blocking key streets and intersections. When that happened, because of their size, they became obstructions too big for most other vehicles to move around.


As a result, the difficulty of the post-storm cleanup effort was multiplied, since all the stuck emergency vehicles had to be removed before the plows could clear the snow-blocked main roads. Consistently behind the curve during the growing emergency, Mayor Bloomberg and his city officials pleaded with city residents not to try to drive, ignoring that in many cases, it was the city’s own vehicles and negligence which was the root cause of many of the problems.




In most major city snowstorms, the standard advice has been for residents who must go out to rely on mass transit rather than their own cars. But in this storm, that proved to be poor advice. Virtually every city subway line with an above-ground segment was at least partially shut down. For the first time in memory, city residents who took mass transit during or immediately after the storm risked becoming marooned in freezing subways and buses for hours on end. It took two days for all the stalled buses to be cleared from the streets and for service to begin to return to normal.


Hundreds of normally stalwart New York City buses got stuck fast in the snow on city streets. Their drivers waited for hours to be relieved like castaways on some deserted polar ice flow, hoping that help would arrive before their bus ran out of the fuel that kept its heaters running.


There were millions of New Yorkers who simply couldn’t get to their jobs, not just on the day of the storm, or even the day after, but for two or three days, costing them money as well as time and inconvenience. The city’s merchants suffered. Many stores running usually profitable end of the year sales stood virtually empty. Medical appointments had to be canceled. Countless simchas had to be postponed, or went forward with only a fraction of their expected guests present. Businesses lost millions of dollars.




The disruption of thousands of flights to and from the region’s three major airports during the middle of a major travel period disrupted the travel plans of tens of thousands of passengers, but that story was quickly overshadowed by the anger of millions of local residents. They talked endlessly about how the failure of the city’s cleanup effort had disrupted their normal lives.


The snowstorm of December, 2010, became an instant urban legend, and how the city’s sanitation department supervisors became instant villains and objects of hatred.




Drivers who had become stuck on miles of snow-blocked, unplowed roads stretching from the Bronx-Westchester line in the north to the south shore of Staten Island, nodded their heads in silent agreement when the villains were finally unmasked during a press conference by City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Queens). He revealed that he had met with three remorseful sanitation department plow drivers, and two department of transportation officials who described the outlines of the conspiracy, and their relatively small roles in carrying it out, with unexpected effectiveness.


According to Halloran, their supervisors ordered the job action to “send a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues [the layoffs and demotions of sanitation workers and supervisors] are more important,” than the welfare of a city of eight million people.


Halloran said the workers who confessed to him “didn’t want to be identified because they were afraid of retaliation. They were told [by supervisors] to take off routes [and] not do the plowing of some of the major arteries in a timely manner. They were told to make the mayor pay for the layoffs, the reductions in rank for the supervisors, and shrinking the rolls of the rank-and-file.”




The work slowdown was carried out during and immediately after the storm in such a way as to conceal that a job action was in progress. The sanitation plows were in use on major roadways, but only their operators knew that they were just skimming the snow on the surface, while deliberately passing over the layer of ice that was accumulating on the surface of the road itself. Furthermore, New Yorkers could not tell by watching them that the snow plow drivers were skipping many of the streets on their normal routes, until days after the storm, when they realized that the plows had never even tried to clear the side streets where they lived.


The five informants also told Councilman Halloran that they were under strict orders from their supervisors not to try to clear any major accumulations of snow until they received specific orders to do so.


According to the informants, the hostility between the mayor and his appointees, and Sanitation Department workers had been growing over the past two years. During that period, the department’s workforce had been reduced by 400 positions, to a total of 5,900 workers and supervisors, due to city budget cuts. In addition, another 100 Sanitation Department supervisors were scheduled to be demoted and their salaries slashed this week as an additional city budget cutting move. Given those circumstances, it is, perhaps, understandable that those supervisors would want to send Bloomberg and his top administrators a message, but they will probably soon have ample reason to regret having sent that message in this way.




The informants also had a plausible explanation for why the city failed to take the necessary preparations for the storm even though they knew how bad it was likely to be a full day before it arrived. The answer, again, was a desire to stay within the budget. The reason why city agencies did not go on full storm emergency alert was fear of the added overtime costs that would have been incurred by calling in employees to work on what was both a weekend and a legal holiday.


That explains why Bloomberg and his sanitation commissioner, both veterans of previous city snowstorms of similar size which were handled properly, including one which hit in February of 2010, were unequal to the task this time.




Bloomberg and his friends in the media establishment were not pleased by Councilman Halloran’s revelations of a revolt in the ranks of the city’s workers. The mayor, while busy trying to blame everyone else for the failure to clear the city’s streets of snow in a timely fashion, abruptly dismissed the Halloran report. He said that the city’s Commissioner of Investigations had heard the allegations of a deliberate work slowdown, but was unable to find any evidence of it (apparently he, too, is snowblind).


Needless to say, Bloomberg was not anxious to wash the dirty laundry inside his administration in public, especially when the public was so angry. His spokesman responded to the reports of a supervisor-orchestrated work slowdown by saying, “We would hope this is not the case.” Neither was the mainstream local media willing to give the story much credibility, with the notable exception of the New York Post, which gave Councilman Halloran’s claims the headline coverage the story deserved.


Even less enlightening were the pro forma denials issued by spokesmen for both the city’s Sanitation Department and the president of the union of sanitation supervisors who were alleged to be behind the slowdown.


“There are no organized or wildcat actions being taken by the sanitation workers or the supervisors,” a department spokesman said, while Joseph Mannion, president of the supervisor’s union, called all talk of a deliberate work slowdown “hogwash,” even while admitting that there is “resentment out there” toward Bloomberg and his budget cuts.


A separate union representing the rank-and-file sanitation workers also denied that there had been a job action, and boasted that members were working 14-hour shifts to clear the snow, and receiving overtime pay for their efforts.




The New York Post claimed that its reporters were able to find independent verification of the claims made by Halloran and his informants. Some plow drivers admitted to only clearing streets that were specifically assigned to them, coming and going to those assignments by driving through snowed-clogged roads with their plows raised above the snow level. They also said that they held their plows above the street surface, making it necessary for them to repeat the same runs, padding their overtime pay.


One mechanic even told the Post that some Sanitation Department drivers had deliberately smashed up plows and salt spreaders to hamper the cleanup effort.


As the criticism of the botched snow removal job continued to escalate, even Bloomberg was forced to back down and admit, “We didn’t do as good a job as we want to do or as the city has a right to expect.”


This was a far cry from Bloomberg’s cavalier statements on the day the storm ended that the blizzard was merely “inconvenient” and that “our city is doing exactly what you’d want it to do.”




As local politicians, ranging from city councilmen to state elected officials and finally the local media itself began demand investigations and accountability for the repeated failure of the city to keep its clean-up promises, the sense of public outrage began feeding on itself. For example, there were follow up reports in the Post that specific neighborhoods in the outer boros had been targeted by the angry supervisors for particularly slow cleanups, because they were more affluent and well-connected politically, such as Middle Village in Queens, and the Borough Park Jewish community.


“It was more targeted than people actually think,” said a city labor source. “Borough Park was specifically targeted [because of] … its ability to rev up the public relations machine.”


The plan worked. Residents of those neighborhoods — who, after three days, were still trying to dig out their cars — were furious.


NY State Assemblyman Dov Hikind called the clean-up “an absolute disaster. You have the most unbelievable anger I’ve ever seen,” he said of his Borough Park constituents.


“The mayor told me the streets would be plowed this morning,” griped Tony Durkin, 59, of Brooklyn, standing on snowy 12th Ave. in Borough Park. “Is the mayor lying, or are my own eyes lying?”




Direct and circumstantial evidence continued to accumulate of some kind of deliberate work slowdown engineered by on-duty sanitation department supervisors during the storm and after the snow stopped falling.


Sanitation department statistics showed that about 700 workers called in sick on the Monday the snow stopped falling, and the next day, more than double the usual daily sick rate.


There was a published report quoting several eyewitness accounts that four department supervisors spent the night after the blizzard drinking beer in a department vehicle parked in an area littered with stuck and abandoned vehicles. The car was parked on McDonald Avenue and 18th Avenue in the Kensington section between Borough Park and Flatbush, near the entrance to an elevated F train station. Meanwhile, nearby streets were blocked by a stranded city bus with 6 passengers on board and three idle city snow plows.


The witnesses saw the supervisors walk through the snow twice to a store near Ocean Parkway to buy beer. They then spent the rest of the night sitting in the car, with the engine running to provide heat, hunkered down in their seats to avoid drawing attention to themselves.


When one of the bystanders asked the supervisors why they weren’t outside trying to clear the streets of snow, they were told by one of them, “Don’t worry about it. We know what we’re doing,”


Later, one of the supervisors was overheard calling his sanitation department superior on a cell phone to tell him that there was nothing they could do because their car had run out of gas.


After the report of the incident was published, an assistant commissioner of the Department of Investigation said that, “we’re looking into what happened.”




By erev Shabbos, the streets of the city finally started to look normal, but even then, it was not largely due to the city’s cleanup efforts. In fact, temperatures had finally risen above freezing long enough to speed up the natural melting process.


“Mother nature’s going to help us, just like it hurt us,” Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty said in a Friday morning radio interview, as temperatures climbed into the high 40s and stayed well above freezing through Sunday.


But it wasn’t until this past Monday, a full week after the snow had stopped falling, that the sanitation department signaled a return to normalcy with the announcement that it was finally going to start picking up normal residential trash once more, which had been accumulating in mini-dumps on sidewalks in front of city apartment houses rising five feet or more high..


It is, perhaps, most fitting that the final, lingering memory of this great botched snow cleanup will be the smell of rotting garbage permeating the city.



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