Winter Storm Hercules Is Bill De Blasio's First Test As New York City Mayor

De Blasio
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference Thursday to explain the city's plan to respond to Winter Storm Hercules. NYC.gov YouTube channel screengrab

Bill de Blasio’s first test as mayor of New York City is coming just one day after his inauguration, and there’s nothing he can do to stall its untimely arrival.

As the evocatively named Winter Storm Hercules barrels down on the metropolitan region, many New Yorkers’ minds are already wandering from the images of former President Bill Clinton swearing in Mike Bloomberg’s successor on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday.

Residents of South Brooklyn, Northeast Queens and other areas that were left unplowed for days following the Dec. 26, 2010, blizzard that haunted the remainder of Bloomberg’s final term are instead watching the skies and hoping de Blasio doesn’t reprise his predecessors’ winter blunders.

It is unlikely that de Blasio will make the same mistakes as Bloomberg, whose administration badly bungled its response to the sixth-largest storm in city history, which blanketed Gotham in 18 to 29 inches of snow three years ago while the billionaire was at one of his homes -- the one in Bermuda.

Hercules is not forecast to be anywhere near as catastrophic -- up to 10 inches of snow are expected -- but all eyes will be on the new mayor and his green administration, as sour memories of the 2010 debacle resurface and de Blasio fends off persistent charges from the right that his progressive governing style will be too weak on crime and other menaces to public order.

De Blasio is acutely aware of the political fallout over the 2010 storm response, and as such his administration took steps on its first and second days to ensure that his third day would not be marked by thousands of snowed-in residents, miles of unplowed streets and an all-around shameful response. De Blasio said during a Thursday press conference that the city Department of Sanitation was prepared to send out 450 salt-spreading trucks and 1,700 snow plows once snow begins to accumulate. He said plans were also in place to deal with public safety, homeless residents, medical care and other key concerns.

"The most important message is: Stay in tonight. Do not drive unless you absolutely need to drive," de Blasio said. "Stay safe and give us the space to keep these streets well-plowed and salted."

The way the Bloomberg administration handled the 2010 snowstorm -- failing to provide enough bodies to drive all the city’s plows, leaving huge swaths of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island unplowed for several days while keeping most Midtown and Lower Manhattan streets consistently cleared, and even endangering residents who needed to get to hospitals and other essential services -- symbolized the former mayor’s perceived indifference to the plight of residents of the “outer boroughs.”

It was a stark reminder that for Bloomberg, the concerns of the wealthier parts of Manhattan often took precedence, despite his claims to the contrary. Brooklyn resident Alexander Lisitsyn succinctly summed up the outrage in comments to the Associated Press following the blizzard: "The mayor doesn't care about us."

As de Blasio and his family settle in at Gracie Mansion from their Brooklyn home, his populist “tale of two cities” campaign theme remains fresh in the ears of voters, and the way the city responds to Winter Storm Hercules will be viewed through that prism. If large swaths of the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn and/or Queens remain entombed in snow while the Manhattan commercial centers are efficiently and effectively cleared, de Blasio could lose significant political capital just a day after he took office.

The Bloomberg administration’s inadequate response to the 2010 snowstorm was one of the biggest scandals of his third term, leading to charges that he was indifferent to the suffering of tens of thousands of residents of the four boroughs not named Manhattan. In an odd twist, then-City Councilman Dan Halloran, a Queens Republican, called for an investigation into the response, alleging that city workers initiated a “slowdown” during the aftermath of the storm “to send a message to City Hall,” and that a number of “plows went down streets with their blades up or sat unmoving for hours as the snow fell.”

The city Department of Investigation did launch an inquiry, during which it found that Halloran attempted to prove that a deliberate, organized work slowdown among city employees took place after the storm hit, but that in fact there was little to no evidence of such a plot. Halloran later walked back some of his initial allegations, saying that his words had been distorted. But the City Council did issue a series of recommendations for responding to future snowstorms, and on Thursday the former councilman told International Business Times that he had faith that de Blasio would respond effectively.

“I am sure Mayor de Blasio will implement the many recommendations the council made in the last four years,” Halloran said. “In particular, he should make certain the outer boroughs have adequate manpower and resources to handle the storm. I have no doubt he and his whole team will be in New York City to coordinate hands-on.”

Even if city employees do a bang-up job of keeping streets cleared and public services running, the new mayor may want to take a page from the book of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who achieved a public-relations coup during the 2010 blizzard (when he was mayor of Newark) by shoveling residents’ cars out of the snow and even delivering diapers to a snowed-in parent, keeping a running tally of the activity on his Twitter feed.

The weather may be out of his hands, but de Blasio needs to do everything he can to prevent a replay of the 2010 calamity if he wants to keep the faith of his new constituents. In ancient Greek mythology, Hercules shoveled manure in the Augean stables as part of his penance for slaying his family; all de Blasio has to do is manage a team of thousands of city workers in order to keep more than 6,000 miles of New York City streets clear of snow. Your move, Mr. Mayor.

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