Reporting Marla Diamond
NEW YORK (CBS New York/AP) – Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration said Monday that its decision not to call a snow emergency during the post-Christmas blizzard might not have been the right call, and that the poor cleanup was exacerbated by a lack of ways to communicate with plow drivers on the streets.
The City Council held a hearing to examine the city’s cleanup efforts for the Dec. 26 storm, which dumped more than 2 feet of snow in parts of the city.
Streets went unplowed, ambulances became stuck while responding to emergencies, and trash has piled up ever since.
The hearings made it crystal clear — the city’s response to the blizzard was too little, too late, and key decisions were simply not made by city leaders on autopilot. The same city leaders who on Monday, under intense grilling, said they were sorry, reports CBS 2′s Dave Carlin.
The City Council members’ emotions ranged from amazed to incredulous to irate.
“We felt completely abandoned,” said Councilman James Sanders Jr. of Queens.
There was no sign of Mayor Bloomberg. Instead, on the hot seat were the deputy mayor and commissioners for fire, OEM and sanitation. They were grilled by council members who made it clear they felt the problem starting at the top.
“The investigation of the sanitation workers is a scapegoat. Just as the firing of the EMS chief is a scapegoat,” said Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn.
“I think you and the mayor are responsible for what happened. You and the mayor should be under investigation, seriously, because the death that occurred could have been avoided.”
Barron hurled accusations at Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, the administration’s point man at the hearing, to which Goldsmith responded: “I appreciate the depth of your opinion, and I, obviously, categorically disagree.”
Goldsmith apologized for the way the city handled the blizzard and admitted numerous mistakes, including the failure to call a snow emergency and that there was a breakdown in communication that left the mayor in the dark.
“The mayor did not have the information he deserved. It was fragmented. It wasn’t distributed. It wasn’t coordinated. It wasn’t properly presented in a way that would have given him the true picture of the situation,” Goldsmith said.
Commissioners were sufficiently prepped to answer the tough questions because they got the questions in advance.
The only one who has lost his job so far is the EMS chief.
“Why was only one person demoted?” Jumaane Williams asked.
Goldsmith was then asked how the EMS chief lost his job and he kept his.
“All of us are eager to be accountable to the public and we are continuing to evaluate this situation,” Goldsmith said.
The city did not declare an emergency during the storm, Goldsmith said, because of the belief that it would cause more traffic problems at the end of the holiday weekend.
But the administration now believes an emergency declaration might have kept more drivers off the road and triggered a more urgent response among city agencies and other authorities that use the declarations for guidance.
“Given the information available at the time, the decision not to declare an emergency was understandable,” Goldsmith said. “However, based on what we know now, an emergency declaration could have yielded a more successful response.”
Goldsmith also said the city lacks decent methods to communicate with plow drivers in the field. That leads to the emergency command centers not having a good understanding of which streets are plowed and which ones are blocked by obstacles.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the storm “brought New York City to its knees.”
“We’re here today to determine what went wrong,” she said.
Bloomberg’s commissioners outlined several improvements the city is planning or has begun. Those include creating formal protocol for considering snow emergencies and testing out a new type of snow chains for ambulances.
Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said the city stopped using chains on ambulances 15 years ago, because many vehicles in the fleet were damaged repeatedly when chains broke off. More than 100 ambulances became stuck in the snow during the holiday storm, and many New Yorkers who needed urgent medical care did not get it right away.
The sanitation department is also equipping every truck with global positioning devices, which have two-way communications that plow workers can use to better report to emergency commanders the status of roads.
The city also said it is streamlining the process for deploying equipment like tow trucks, as well as improving its abilities to quickly hire private contractors for towing, plowing and hauling.
Further, officials said the city will create an online portal with winter weather information, a site where New Yorkers will be able to post photos and video, increasing the real-time information available to commanders about the cleanup.