Mayor Says 911 Fell Short

The Wall Street Journal - December 30, 2010


As New Yorkers' fury intensified at the sight of streets still covered with snow, Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday acknowledged the city's response to the blizzard was "a lot worse" than previous storms and he voiced enormous dismay with the performance of the 911 system.

"My heart really does go out to those who experienced trauma and tragedy during the storm," said Mr. Bloomberg following reports of people who died waiting for ambulances to arrive. "We take our emergency life-saving responsibilities very seriously and I'm extremely dissatisfied with the way our emergency-response systems performed."

Mr. Bloomberg, speaking at a hardware store in the Bronx, said the city's 911 system became overwhelmed by the deluge of calls. On Monday, the city received more than 49,400 calls to 911, the sixth-largest volume in history, resulting that night in a backlog of roughly 1,700 calls to the NYPD and FDNY.

The mayor has ordered a comprehensive review of the 911 call-taking and dispatch functions, as some of the loved ones of those who died have taken to the airwaves to express their grief and anger at the city's sluggish response to the storm.

The administration is examining, among other things, whether ambulances should have taken different routes, and whether emergency personnel should have parked farther away from scenes and walked.

More than 48 hours after the last flake fell, a large swath of southern Brooklyn, parts of western Queens and areas of Staten Island remained covered with snow. Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty said he expected to have "all the streets" in the city plowed by 7 a.m. Thursday.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Sanitation Department said 100% of "primary" streets citywide had been plowed, 96% of "secondary" streets and 89% of "tertiary" streets.

The mayor, who has been the target of withering criticism from elected officials and residents, many of whom supported his controversial bid for a third term, conceded his administration failed to respond properly to the blizzard. The mayor speculated as to why-such as an unusually high number of stranded vehicles blocking roads and strong winds deterring snow removal-but he said he couldn't offer any firm conclusions yet.

"We did not do as good a job as we wanted to do or as the city has a right to expect," the mayor said. "I cannot tell you for sure why it was a lot worse this time than the other times."

Still, the mayor offered a strong defense of Mr. Doherty, insisting the commissioner will serve the remaining three years of the mayor's term. "This is the best sanitation commissioner this city has ever had. Period. Bar none," Mr. Bloomberg said.

The region's transportation network continued its slow return to normalcy Wednesday. Its three commuter railroads ran close to their usual service, and gaps in subway service caused by the snow were filled in.

There were just over 250 cancellations at the region's three airports, down from 1,000 Tuesday. The airports handle 3,000 flights on an average day.

"Things are slowly but surely getting back to normal," said Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

But snow-covered roads continued to slow buses. Many routes were detoured or delayed, especially in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

In Brooklyn, some major thoroughfares remained clogged, sections of sidewalks were covered with snow and garbage cans overflowed with rubbish. At Lincoln Place and Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, cars began double parking along the snowbanks in the intersection.

Yellow-cab driver David Baker, who made it 50 feet from a garage before his cab became stuck, estimated he's lost $1,500 in earnings as a result of the storm. "I can't get through the street. Nobody is helping me," said Mr. Baker, who noted he's always supported the mayor. "Things happen, but he can do better than that."

At the corner of Cortelyou Road and Argyle Street in Ditmas Park, Liena Zagare, a 34-year-old local blogger, took it upon herself to shovel the crosswalk. She cleaned the crosswalk on both sides of the street five times in the past few days, she said. Argyle Street, a side road, was "plowed for the first time around lunchtime" Wednesday, she said.

"I got tired of watching people not be able to cross, stopping and staring sadly," she said.

Ditmas Park, which is served only by the B and Q trains, had been without subway service until Wednesday, and buses have been running "once in a blue moon," she said. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, borrowing the mayor's words for the Board of Elections' botched handling of the September primary, has called the city's response to the storm a "royal screw-up."

In an interview on CNN, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said, "People are mad and they have every right to be mad and I really understand that anger... Almost every other storm in memory the city has done so much better than this."

Mr. Doherty said his department has set a "very high standard" with previous storm responses and "unfortunately" this time didn't meet that standard. But, he said, "I'm not here to make excuses right now."

The mayor promised to do better in the future.

"The results were not what we'd like them to be, but it has not been for lack of effort," he said. "We'll find what was different this time and try doing everything we can to make sure it's better next time."

-Andrew Grossman contributed to this article.