The Boxing Day Blizzard hit the Northeast hard. The New York City region received two to three feet of snow with high winds. Two days later the New York Times headline reads: City Limps as Storm Impact Chastens Mayor; Many Streets Remain Unplowed. This and other media reports are full of emergency response delays and their tragic consequences.
From a distance the biggest recovery problem appears to be the number of vehicles — including city buses — that were left snowbound in the middle of many streets. Wednesday Mayor Bloomberg “took responsibility” and indicated he was “extremely dissatisfied” by the city’s response. According to the Times Mr. Bloomberg also suggested some other responsible parties:
The mayor also spread some of the blame for the city’s problems on to its citizens, who he said had failed to heed requests that they not call for help unless they faced true emergencies. Those calls, the mayor said, “overwhelmed” the emergency communications system, a failure that he said he had assigned an official to investigate. City residents also compounded the problem by trying to drive in the storm, only to have their cars stuck in the path of plows. (Bloomberg Takes Blame)
Does the 911 system habituate dependence and discourage citizen preparedness? This was a recurring theme at a recent UASI conference.
On Thursday morning December 30 the Times is leading with Inaction and Delays by New York as Storm Bore Down. The reporting implies officials underestimated the risk and did not take action that could have mitigated the impact.
No one remains who personally recalls the Great White Hurricane of 1888. Twenty-two inches of snow fell in Central Park. Winds were 40 miles per hour. In other parts of the city unofficial totals of three to five feet of snow were reported. Two-hundred New Yorker’s died. Some claim this calamity pushed New York to build the subway rather than depend on the more vulnerable elevated trains. Are there similar strategic lessons to be learned today or will we focus entirely on tactical and operational issues?
Following are excerpts of the New York Times report on the March 13 1888 storm (thanks to nycsubway.org)
IN A BLIZZARD’S GRASP
The worst storm the city has ever known
Business travel completely suspended
New York helpless in a tornado of wind and snow which paralyzed all industry, isolated the city from the rest of the country, caused many accidents and great discomfort, and exposed it to many dangers.
The storm of wind and rain, which began to sweep over this city and the neighborhood on Sunday evening, gathered force as the night progressed. The temperature began to fall albeit and snow descended in succession and the wind be- came boisterous. Before daylight dawned yesterday a remarkable storm, the most annoying and detrimental in its results that the city has ever witnessed, was in full progress.
When the people began to stir to go about their daily tasks and vocations, they found that a blizzard, just like those they have been accustomed to read about as occurring in the far West had struck this city and its environs and had held an embargo on the travel and traffic of the greatest city on the continent. What the presence of a blizzard meant was soon manifest.
Before the day had well advanced, every horse-car and elevated railroad train in the city had stopped running; the streets were almost impassable to men or horses by reason of the huge masses of drifting snow; the electric wires- telegraph and telephone — connecting spots in the city or opening communication with places outside were nearly all broken; hardly a train was out from the city or came into it during the entire day; the mails were stopped, and every variety of business dependent on motion or locomotion was stopped.
Thus the city, to a great extent, was at a standstill yesterday, and the prospects are not much better for to-day. People vexed at the collapse of all the principal means of intercommunication and transportation became reflective, and the result was a general expression of opinion that an immediate and radical improvement was imperative. So the blizzard may accomplish what months, if not years, of argument might have failed to do.
Probably it had not been for the blizzard the people of the city might have ignored one for an indefinite time enduring the nuisance of electric wires dangling from poles, of slow trains running on the trestlework, and slower cars drawn by horses in the streets dangerous with their center tearing rails. Now two things tolerably certain that a system of a really rapid transit which cannot be made inoperable by storms must be straightaway devised and as speedily as possible constructed and that all the electric wires — telegraph, telephone, fire alarms, and illuminating — must be put underground without any delay.
The elevated roads and the elevated electric wires are not only made useless by a severe storm, but they are made dangerous. The city is liable to be put into darkness and the consequent perils. There is also that danger of conflagration through the failure of the fire alarm wires.
In looking back at the events of yesterday the most amazing thing to the residents of this great city must be the ease with which the elements were able to overcome the boasted triumph of civilization, particularly in those respects which philosophers and statesmen have contended permanently marked our civilization and distinguished it from the civilization of the old world — our superior means of intercommunication. Before the fury of the great blizzard they all went down, whether propelled by steam or electricity. The elevated trains became useless; so did the telegraph wires, the telephone wires, the wires for conveying the electric lights, the wires for giving the alarms of fire. And, worse than useless, they became dangerous…
It is hard to believe in this last quarter of the nineteenth century that for even one day New-York could be so completely isolated from the rest of the world as if Manhattan Island was in the middle of the South Sea.