At 3:58 a.m. on Christmas morning, the National Weather Service upgraded its alert about the snow headed to New York City, issuing a winter storm watch. By 3:55 p.m., it had declared a formal blizzard warning, a rare degree of alarm. But city officials opted not to declare a snow emergency — a significant mobilization that would have, among other things, aided initial snow plowing efforts.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority entered the holiday weekend with modest concerns about the weather. On Friday, it issued its lowest-level warning to subway and bus workers. Indeed, it was not until late Sunday morning, hours after snow had begun to fall, that the agency went to a full alert, rushing to call in additional crew members and emergency workers. Over the next 48 hours, subways lost power on frozen tracks and hundreds of buses wound up stuck in snow-filled streets.
By 4 p.m. Sunday, several inches of snow had accumulated when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made a plea for help at his first news conference about the escalating storm: he asked people with heavy equipment and other kinds of towing machinery to call the city’s 311 line to register for work. A full day had gone by since the blizzard warning had been issued.
The storm, if it exposed shortcomings in the city’s emergency response system, did not take it by surprise.
The National Weather Service began issuing its first hazardous-weather outlooks for the city on Tuesday, Dec. 21. The alarm was modest, the sense of certainty elusive.
But by Friday, the service was forecasting a 30 to 40 percent chance of six inches or more of snow, most likely north and east of the city, accompanied by wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour, from Sunday afternoon into Monday.
“However,” it cautioned, “a storm track only about 100 miles west of the expected track could bring a significant wind-driven snowfall to the entire region.”
Over the next 24 hours, that likelihood grew, and an hour or so before dawn on Christmas, the Weather Service upgraded the notification to a winter storm watch, which called for six to eight inches of snow and strong, gusty winds for the city and the surrounding region.
City officials maintain that they were closely monitoring the updates. But the deputy mayor in charge of overseeing the snow response, Stephen Goldsmith, had left New York for Washington. A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg insisted that Mr. Goldsmith was in regular communication with agency chiefs: Mr. Doherty, the sanitation commissioner; Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner; and Joseph F. Bruno, the head of the Office of Emergency Management.
Those officials soon had more information about the storm, and a major decision to make.
At 3:55 p.m. on Saturday, the Weather Service issued a blizzard warning, forecasting 11 to 16 inches of snow, with higher amounts in some areas. It warned that strong winds would cause “considerable blowing and drifting of snow” that could take down power lines and tree limbs.
“Extremely dangerous travel conditions developing due to significant snow accumulations,” it said.
The city has long had a weapon in its arsenal to consider for such moments: the ability to declare a snow emergency.
Doing so allows the city to ban vehicles from parking on more than 300 designated “snow emergency streets.” Vehicles that remain after the declaration can be ticketed or towed. And any vehicles moving on those streets must use chains or snow tires.
The rationale is straightforward: clearing vehicles from those streets gives plows the best chance to move through them rapidly, keeping emergency services routes open and allowing the plows to move onto secondary streets.
Norman Steisel, who was at the forefront of snow removal in the city for a dozen years during the Koch and Dinkins administrations, said the declaration of an emergency from a mayor also helped clarify among the public the confusing array of forecasts often heard on television.
“It’s a very strong, powerful public message which has a certain effect,” Mr. Steisel said.
Jerome M. Hauer, who spent four years as the city’s emergency management commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, said he advised the mayor on whether to declare a snow emergency based on forecasts from the Weather Service and other sources.
There were no hard and fast rules, Mr. Hauer said, but anything above six or seven inches would start “to create problems for the city, so it was clear you’d have to start thinking it was time to declare a snow emergency.”
Both current and former city officials had difficulty recalling how many times such an emergency had been declared. One current official said the last one had been declared in 2003.
Still, Mr. Hauer asserted, “if they said we were getting a blizzard, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
But the Bloomberg administration decided not to call a snow emergency. One city official briefed on the response to the storm said it was explicitly considered. But ultimately Mr. Doherty and Ms. Sadik-Khan decided against it, said Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for Ms. Sadik-Khan.
Mr. Solomonow said the forecast was not severe enough.
“As of about 5 p.m. on Christmas Day,” he said, “the forecast called for about a foot of accumulation, which is not uncommon and which is not a basis for a snow emergency declaration.”
Mr. Bloomberg, asked Tuesday why an emergency had not been declared, confused the issue by asserting that doing so would have put more cars on the roads, potentially creating more problems. But clearly, had he declared an emergency shortly after the Weather Service’s blizzard warning, there would have been ample time to move cars before the heavy snow began.
Mr. Hauer called the decision bewildering, and Mr. Bloomberg’s claims misleading.
“We’ve done snow emergencies in the city for decades, many decades, and people have always found a place to put their cars,” said Mr. Hauer, who has had many angry disagreements with Mr. Bloomberg over the years. “You’ve just got to give them enough time.”
Bloomberg should have declared a snow emergency.
He says the forecast wasn't serious enough to warrant that call.
But the Times shows that Bloomberg had enough warning about the seriousness of the storm - a winter storm warning was called by the National Weather Service a full 31 hours before the storm and a blizzard warning was called 19 hours before the storm started.
Giuliani's emergency management commissioner says it was a no-brainer to put a snow emergency in place given the forecast.
Bloomberg, for whatever reason, decided not to.
People died because of that decision.
Now Bloomberg MUST be held accountable for those decisions and the consequences that resulted from them.