NEW YORK, N.Y. – They appeared to be scenes from a frozen apocalypse.
Streets across the nation’s largest city were empty, the only movement the changing traffic lights signalling to cars that weren’t there. The subway system was shuttered, the city’s pulse rendered still. Hardy souls who braved the snow were threatened with fines or arrest.
And it could be the new normal.
Though the snowstorm largely missed New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio staunchly defended their unprecedented, stringent restrictions, both saying they believed in landing on the side of caution and suggesting they would take such measures again.
“Would you rather be ahead of the action or behind? Would you rather be prepared or unprepared? Would you rather be safe or unsafe?” de Blasio asked Tuesday at City Hall. “To me it was a no-brainer: we had to take precautions to keep people safe.”
Before the heavy snows even reached New York, officials closed schools, shut down bridges and tunnels, cancelled commuter rail service and, for the first time ever in a snowstorm, closed the city’s sprawling subway system at 11 p.m. Monday. A travel ban was put in place and drivers caught out on the roads were subject to arrest.
Similar restrictions, previously unheard of, were put in place for a pair of hurricanes within the last five years.
But the meteorologists whose forecasts informed the region’s actions this week were wrong. The storm, while powerful on Long Island and in New England, ended up leaving far less than a foot of snow in New York City. And the decision to lock down the city — particularly the decision to close the subways — drew significant criticism from some business owners and transit advocacy groups.
For both men, mistakes made during previous storms guided their decisions.
New York City was caught unprepared for a blizzard that arrived in December 2010 when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg was out of town before the storm struck. It resulted in miles of unplowed roads, stranded ambulances and angry residents stuck in their homes for days.
After that debacle, Bloomberg ritualized a show of over-preparedness for future storms. A series of press conferences — held before, during, and after storms — were conducted in which the mayor, flanked by his commissioners, attempted to exude confidence by delivering an avalanche of statistics to display the city’s readiness for the approaching snowstorm or hurricane. De Blasio has done the same, particularly after his administration stumbled on plowing for one storm early last year.
Cuomo acknowledged that his decision to act aggressively stems from the historic storm that blanketed Buffalo with seven feet of snow late last year.
“We make big decisions based on these weather forecasts,” the governor said. “We decided not to close the roads in Buffalo … and we had people stranded on the roads for 12, 15, 20 hours. You can have a significant loss of life in these situations.”
There were no reported fatalities in New York City. The city did, however, lose about $200 million in economic activity due to the snow storm and decision to shut down the transit system, but it wasn’t a crippling loss, according to a preliminary estimate from Moody’s Analytics.
But while de Blasio and Cuomo defended their actions, their united front showed a few cracks. They never appeared at a joint press conference, which created the somewhat absurd sight Monday of the two men, who were just five miles apart, delivering similar information in separate press conferences within an hour of each other.
And on Tuesday, de Blasio revealed that his administration only received word that the subways — which are under the state’s control — were being shut down mere minutes before Cuomo made the public announcement. He declined to second-guess the decision but made clear he wanted its repercussions studied.
“It was a very big move and certainly something we would have liked to have had more dialogue on,” de Blasio told reporters. “I think that’s a big decision, an unprecedented decision, that absolutely should be evaluated after the fact.”