Bloomberg Team on Blizzard Response: We’re Sorry! (But It’s Not Our Fault.)

Sarah Laskow | January 11th, 2011

Photo by reagan9000 via Flickr

Yesterday, in the first of many planned hearings on the post-Christmas blizzard that shut down the city, representatives of the Bloomberg administration tried to fend off City Council members with data: the backlog of 311 calls (at times, over 1,000), the number of plows and salt spreaders initially deployed (more than 1750 and 365, respectively), the average response time to emergency calls (10 minutes and 26 seconds).

One set of numbers they did not have at the ready, however, was distribution of resources among the five boroughs.

“I don’t believe the outer boroughs were left out as a result of resources being in Manhattan,” Commissioner John Doherty, of the sanitation department, assured the skeptical legislators, after he had been asked about the issue more than once. He had told the council earlier that plows and other equipment were “equally distributed depending on what the needs of that borough were.”

The Bloomberg team, led by Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, was, officially, apologetic. Goldsmith and his colleagues lamented the drawn-out clean-up, the travails of the average citizens whose streets stayed unplowed for days, and the tragedies of people who needed and did not get medical attention, as ambulances lodged in snow drifts. They said they were sorry.

But beyond the official contrition, Bloomberg’s team was defensive: The officials talked often of the fast rate at which the snow fell (2 inches per hour, or more) and its place among the city’s most dramatic snowstorms (6th largest in history). Doherty spoke of working as a sanitation worker in the 1969 blizzard, then called this more recent one “the most powerful storm I can recall in my career.” And all of the witnesses grew testy, as City Councilors referenced memos, timelines, press releases, and eyewitness reports intended, it seemed, to corner the Bloomberg officials:  to force them to admit that something had gone fundamentally wrong.

They weren’t quite ready to concede that point, although they did have a plan, studded with Roman numerals and action items, to help them improve. Next time, they promised, they would deploy more resources from more departments more quickly. And they would use new technologies to amass even more data. The plan mentions GPS devices, live monitors, a new Web site; Goldsmith mentioned crowd-sourcing and social media.

Twitter was just a convenient medium for Booker to convey two things to his constituents: that he was listening, and that he cared enough to do his best to fix what problems he could.

If that’s the direction the administration is going, the logical place to look is just south of the city, towards Newark, where Twittering mayor Cory Booker fought the snowstorm with a shovel in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Booker has been using social media to target street-level problems since well before the storm — constituents might reach out on Twitter to report a pothole or ask where to donate unwanted clothes. During the blizzard, Booker used Twitter to identify and respond to complaints of unplowed streets. Unlike Mayor Bloomberg, Booker has been praised for his storm response.

Some of the most powerful criticism that City Council members were able to levy against the Bloomberg officials derived from the same sort of eyewitness reports that Booker responded to directly. They spoke about ambulances stuck for 20 hours, individuals who needed medical attention and did not get it, snow plows that sat idle because there weren’t enough sanitation workers to staff them, a hospital where the road in front was clear but the road that led to the emergency room entrance was not.

The Bloomberg officials did recognize that these sorts of issues were not addressed quickly enough. (Recall the 311 backlog.) “We have to capture that information in better ways,” Deputy Mayor Goldsmith said. He suggested, for instance, that bringing more 311 capabilities to the web and to text-messaging would allow more tech-savvy users to file reports and find answers to question, freeing up the 311 lines and limiting backlog.

And indeed, the administration did try to reach out, belatedly, to snow-bound New Yorkers via social media last week. Goldsmith’s two most recently Tweets, both from December 31, tell New Yorkers, “Let us know if you block needs more work,” and “we want your feedback on City’s snow response. Tweet to me w/thoughts on what went wrong & how we can do better next time.”

What Mayor Bloomberg and his colleagues don’t appear to realize, however, is that promising more technology — more numbers — won’t necessarily solve the problems they faced at the end of December. Despite the council’s best efforts to identify systematic issues today, they came up with few. It was a big storm. Snow was falling fast, and the plows had a hard time keeping up with it. There was not a good system in place for tracking problems, like cars stuck in snow drifts, that interfered with plowing. The decision-makers, Goldsmith and Doherty and Joseph Bruno, the emergency management commissioner, may not have reacted fast enough to conditions on the ground.

Aside from tracking plowing routes, it’s unclear how technology could have dramatically improved the situation. And in reality, technology played only a peripheral role in Booker’s success, too. Twitter was just a convenient medium for Booker to convey two things to his constituents: that he was listening, and that he cared enough to do his best to fix what problems he could.

To a certain extent, the Bloomberg administration appears to have learned that lesson. Goldsmith promised that next time around the administration would listen more closely to on-the-ground reports, as conveyed by the City Council. “One of things you all do is say this is a really serious matter, it’s not just a dot on the map, pay attention to it,” he said. On the other hand, don’t expect Mayor Bloomberg to wander the streets of New York with a shovel any time soon. And no matter what Goldsmith promised, listening is not the mayor’s strong suit. The council will have a chance to test out the administration’s new openness to their reports, though: It’s supposed to snow tonight, heavily.