Last winter I blogged about the lessons in failed leadership resulting from the historic and messy Blizzard of 2010 in New York City and the fury of my Brooklyn neighbors as days went by without subway service or adequate snow plows. Now in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, some New Yorkers are grousing that there should not have been so many evacuations or closings. Yet Friday, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference to announce mandatory evacuations in Battery Park City, Coney Island and other coastal regions, including the beaches in Staten Island, he didn’t have the luxury of hindsight. He even announced that the city’s subways and buses would shut down for the first time in the city’s history rather than risk stranding passengers in flooded streets or underground railways.
When you review the unfolding scenario, it’s clear our leadership did not over-react. As Irene first headed up the coast as a category 2 Hurricane, the worst case scenario presented by meteorologists predicted a slightly weakened category 1 monster flooding lower Manhattan and driving in the high tides with 100 mile per hour winds. That scenario could have resulted in severe damage to the subway infrastructure and power grid in the lower Manhattan area, not to mention blown out windows in many high rise buildings throughout the boroughs. Coastal regions like Coney Island, the Rockaways and Long Beach could have been flooded and cut off from the mainland under this early prediction.
Irene was not downgraded to a tropical storm with winds closer to 60-70 miles per hour until just before the eye of the storm set down on Coney Island on Sunday morning. I watched the ominous early flooding that could have been so catastrophic if the winds had remained stronger. The fact is New York City had no reported fatalities that day and little major damage. As the sun returned over New York City on Monday morning, the subways and buses were running again and my neighborhood was cleaning up. Irene had remained a ferocious storm, as thousands of residents flooded out of their homes in Long Island and New Jersey can still attest. Yes, I am grateful for over-preparedness! That’s the New York I love!
The usually glorious holiday season in New York got an angry buzz when the Blizzard of 2010 buried the Boroughs on Christmas weekend, and stranded passengers on subways and trains, while accusations and denials flew back and forth on the airwaves. The season of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men turned into an angry Wagnerian chorus. Ultimately, it became a lesson in failed leadership.
The usually calm Mayor Bloomberg was irritable and lectured critical residents to be patient as day after day went by without snow plows or relief. In my Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park, residents were stranded by unplowed snow drifts and without access to cars or public transportation. Each time I went out, I found my neighbors grumbling as they trudged through snow clogged street corners, searching for signs of help, swapping horror stories and rumors about work stoppages by angry sanitation workers, and agreeing that it had never, ever been this bad.
“I don’t believe he gives a hoot about us in Brooklyn,” one neighbor complained to me, suggesting Bloomberg was only interested in his own Borough of Manhattan. Another declared, “I’ve lived here 40 years and it has never been this bad.” Others compared it to the “Lindsay Storm” in 1969, which ended that Mayor’s political future. One media pundit speculated that it was the curse of the third term, where Mayors often lose their early energy and focus and make strategic errors that tarnish their legacy.
Each day, tragic stories came in from Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island as emergency vehicles were unable to respond in time to calls of help from residents in distress, especially involving the elderly and newborns (see Daily News coverage http://nydn.us/ecHO1C). New Yorkers could compare Bloomberg’s haughty attitude to Newark’s Corey Booker, who picked up a shovel and helped out his constituents. Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, reported that clean up crews In Nassau and Suffolk counties had clearly beaten the champs in NYC this time –they couldn’t believe it!
Bloomberg finally admitted the city flubbed its response and agreed to an inquiry, so we will eventually find out what decisions – or failure of command – led to the chaos that everyone agreed couldn’t be repeated.
Now as we start the New Year, let’s hope the Mayor and his inner circle learned clear lessons in leadership for times of on-going budget crisis. Leaders for our new times need to make citizens (and employees) believe in the future again!