By Jill Colvin
CITY HALL — The administration's botched handling of the December blizzard could have been minimized had the city declared a snow emergency, an apologetic Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith testified at a City Council hearing Monday.
"An emergency declaration could have yielded a much more successful response," he told members of the Council at the highly-anticipated hearing into why the city was so slow to react to the post-Christmas blizzard that dumped 20 inches of snow on the Big Apple.
Goldsmith and officials from the departments of Sanitation, Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and FDNY took the Council through an hour-by-hour account of the days leading up to and following the blizzard, when snow plows were impeded by hundreds of cars and buses stuck in the snow, and thousands of calls overwhelmed emergency services.
"The city's response to the snowstorm was unacceptable," Goldsmith said, echoing Bloomberg's later words. "We were too slow to respond and too slow to finish."
Goldsmith said in hindsight that calling an emergency would have triggered a chain reaction that would have mobilized resources and helped warn the public about the coming storm.
But Goldsmith said that neither he nor the mayor had ever weighed in on the emergency question.
"We need a much clearer protocol in City Hall and in the administration about who's involved and what decisions they make," he said.
During the hearing, Goldsmith outlined a new 15-point action plan to try to prevent an encore of the communications and planning failures when the city gets its next big snow fall, expected to hit Tuesday night.
The city will change its criteria for declaring a snow emergency and establish a new formal set of guideline, with better coordination between agencies and plans to secure equipment from private contractors ahead of time.
All sanitation trucks will also be equipped with GPS systems, and a new page will be created on the city’s website where residents will be able to file reports.
Goldsmith said he hoped the new protocols would bridge what felt to many like a disconnect between the neighborhoods and City Hall.
The nearly five-hour grilling revealed repeated cases of last-minute scrambling and hazy chains of command.
Some of the sharpest criticism was directed at OEM Commissioner Joe Bruno, who confirmed that the OEM'S Emergency Operations Center hadn't opened until ten hours after the blizzard began.
Bruno also revealed that the administration had considered calling in the National Guard to help clear the snow, but had decided it would take them too long to respond.
Goldsmith and other officials adamantly denied that budget cuts had anything to do with the slow response.
Still, Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty said his agency had now spent nearly all of its $38 million snow-clearing budget for the year on the storm.
The city is considering applying for state and federal aid, Bruno said.
The hearing was the first of seven the Council has scheduled concerning the blizzard response, and came a day before the city was set to receive another round of snow.
"Over the last two weeks it has become abundantly clear that this city’s response to this storm was unacceptable," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said during her opening statement. Quinn's comments followed a moment of silence in honor of those injured during this weekend's Tucson, Ariz. shooting.
"This storm brought New York City to its knees," Quinn said. "We're here to find out what went wrong.”
The Council's Transportation Committee will hold a separate hearing Friday about the MTA's response to the blizzard where residents will be allowed to speak.
The City Council has also scheduled hearings in each of the boroughs beginning Jan. 17 in Staten Island.
Manhattanites will have the chance to testify about their experiences during the storm on Thurs., Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. at the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building at 163 W. 125th St. in room 8ABC.