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What Really Caused NYC’s Epic ‘Snowfu’

The blizzard that hit NYC on December 26 was both a natural and a man-made disaster.

Trouble started the day before the storm arrived when top city officials decided not to declare a snow emergency. This left the Sanitation Department scrambling to mobilize its full workforce after the intense storm had already begun. “We walked hip-deep in snow to work,” one sanitation worker told the Daily News. The delay in getting all plow trucks out on the roads meant that more cars got stuck, a problem that “snowballed” as abandoned cars made it impossible to plow many streets.

“I started getting text messages from ambulance drivers at 3 am Monday that they were stuck in the snow,” Pat Bahnken, head of the EMS workers’ union, told columnist Juan González. “I urged the Fire Department to declare a snow emergency, but they were told City Hall said ‘no.’”

SHORTAGE OF PEOPLE AND SALT

Mayor Bloomberg’s drive to cut spending on public services also played a role. The City laid off 300 sanitation workers last year, and the News reported that Bensonhurst Station had declined from 165 employees to 125 since 2006. A little-noticed report in the Post said that the City went light on snow preparations on the 25th “to save on added overtime that would have had to be paid [to workers] on Christmas Day.”

In some areas there was a shortage of salt used to melt snow and ice on the roads. Sanitation employees said the department had switched to inferior, cheaper snow chains that easily broke – and left plow trucks stuck in the snow themselves.

“We never [before] had a perfect storm of fewer men, inferior equipment, 70-mph winds and a political failure to declare a snow emergency,” a worker told the Daily News.

Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who the Times reported was in charge of snow preparations, were out of town December 25-26. The mayor has refused to answer questions about where he was, or who was in charge in his absence.

MEDIA MELTDOWN

But according to some in the media, sanitation workers were the real problem. On December 30, the front page of the New York Post roared, “ABOMINABLE SNOWMEN: Sanit workers in blizzard sabotage.” Its report said that “selfish Sanitation bosses” had sabotaged the cleanup in retaliation for department cutbacks and demotions.

The Post’s sole source was Daniel Halloran, a Tea Party-backed City Councilmember from Queens, who claimed that two Transportation Department supervisors and three workers from the Sanitation Department had told him they were ordered to stage a slowdown.

The story was quickly picked up by Fox News, CNN, the Washington Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and even “Saturday Night Live.” It was used as a cudgel for bashing public-sector workers as lazy, overpaid and undeserving of public support.

The allegations sparked investigations by the New York City Department of Investigation, the Brooklyn and Queens district attorneys, and the Brooklyn US attorney’s public integrity unit. But once put under the spotlight, Halloran’s charges began to melt away faster than the 20 inches of snow that the blizzard left behind. In fact, proof that any “abominable snowmen” existed was as thin as the evidence for Yeti or Bigfoot.

On January 26, The New York Times reported that prosecutors had not found a single source to corroborate Halloran’s charges, and had “no proof that anything occurred.” The two supervisors did not back up Halloran’s account when interviewed, and Halloran refused to divulge names of the three sanitation workers he says he spoke with. Halloran has begun to hedge his story, saying that workers were not exactly ordered to slow down, and that in any case it was probably just “a few bad apples.”

“The real story here is how a single, poorly supported allegation against public workers gets inflated into a national scandal,” said John Hyland of the PSC Solidarity Committee.

The gap between media fiction and sanitation workers’ reality was summed up by the Post’s indignant publication of a photo that showed a sanitation worker asleep inside his truck. In fact, according to the Daily News, the man was resting after 15 hours on the job without a break.

More Coverage / On The Job In The Blizzard
More Coverage / Viewpoint: Scapegoating Public Workers