Mayor Bloomberg's Response to Hurricane Irene Praised by His Critics

By Jill Colvin on August 29, 2011 3:47pm 

Mayor Michael Bloomberg meets with city commissioners and state officials at the new NYPD Joint Operation Center August 28, 2011.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg meets with city commissioners and state officials at the new NYPD Joint Operation Center August 28, 2011.
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Edward Reed

MANHATTAN — Even the mayor’s most ardent critics praised his response to Hurricane Irene on Monday, despite the fact that it packed a less powerful punch than many feared.

The mayor had taken a beating after the Christmas blizzard, when City Hall appeared completely out of touch with the situation on the ground. Top city officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, were out of town, and precautions that could have helped minimize the impact were ignored — sending his poll numbers diving.

This time around, things were different. Officials began planning days in advance and took unprecedented steps, including issuing mandatory evacuation orders for low-lying areas and shutting down the entire transit system to prevent long-term damage.

“It’s amazing what you can learn about how to be upfront in a disaster after a cold, snowy one in December,” said top Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf of the city’s response to Hurricane Irene.

“The mayor was center-stage, up front and in charge of preparations and did everything right.”

While some during the storm accused the mayor of overreacting to make up for his previous failures, many changed their tune after witnessing the damage that Irene delivered to the suburbs, throughout New Jersey, and in other states.

“It probably was a bit of an overreaction, but better safe than sorry,” said Mickey Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, of the administration’s decision to evacuate and shut down trains.

“Should they have stopped everything? Maybe not. But I think the pluses, which is that nobody got hurt, way outweighed the minuses,” he said.

Many residents getting back to work Monday after a weekend indoors agreed.

“It’s better off to be prepared and keep people out of danger,” said Victor Berlizov, 28, a vendor in Times Square who weathered the storm at his Brooklyn home.

He said that storms are unpredictable, and that after watching the blizzard failure, he was pleased to see the city taking a more hands-on approach.

“They were taking care of the people,” he said.

This time around, the mayor was constantly in front of the cameras, giving three separate press conferences on Saturday alone. Sitting at the head of a long table inside the Joint Operation Center at Police Headquarters Sunday, surrounded by city commissioners and state officials, the message was crystal clear: the mayor was in charge.

“Everyone in times of crisis wants a leader, and it showed there was someone in charge,” said veteran political observer and former Edward Koch press secretary George Arzt of the mayor's press strategy.

“He often seemed tired at the press conferences, but people knew they had a mayor who was working for them,” he said.

Even the mayor’s most vocal critics, including City Comptroller John Liu, praised the city’s change in command, which included the replacement of former Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith with the hands-on Caswell Holloway, who formerly served as Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

(The mayor complained both privately to his staff and publicly Sunday that Holloway had called him repeatedly through the night with updates on the storm, interrupting his sleep.)

“Now that Hurricane Irene has come and gone, New Yorkers should take a moment to recognize that the storm’s effects would have been much worse if Mayor Bloomberg had not taken steps to properly prepare the city for the worst storm to hit the East Coast in decades,” Liu said in a statement Monday.

“There is no doubt that the early and successful coordination of city agencies, led by the Office of Emergency Management, mitigated the storm’s impact in the city,” he said.

The administration was also in constant touch with City Council members and other elected officials, offering frequent updates and briefings — a change that many praised.

“I think there’s a unique sincerity when I stand up before all of you and tip my hat to the administration,” Staten Island City Councilman James Oddo, the minority leader, told reporters at a press conference Monday.

“It was a fantastic response," added Oddo, who is also frequently at odds with the mayor.

Political observers said the mayor’s hands-on approach could lead to a bump in the polls.

“This wipes out this December,” said Sheinkopf, who predicted the mayor’s poll numbers would likely get a boost.

Arzt agreed that the efforts could repair some of the damage from the December blizzard.

“I don’t think it erases that, but it shows that the mayor has learned,” he said.

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