Snowstorms are serious business in New York.
Serious enough that Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a snow day for students on Wednesday night, several hours before the snow started falling early Thursday morning. He urged New Yorkers to remain at home.
On Thursday, at the height of the storm, he and Gov. Andrew Cuomo put their long-running feud aside to agree on one thing: that their constituents should STAY OFF THE ROAD!
The politicians were doing their best to live up to the moment. When it comes to the snow, hell or angry voters will pay if the plows don’t run on time, while the officials get free passes on everything from jail policy to homelessness.
This year’s election year for de Blasio, so he’d like to avoid bad snow politics like what occurred last winter in Queens. There, residents with eyes tuned to both their front steps and the city’s swanky plow tracker were quick to complain that their streets were underserved. The mayor didn’t help himself when he cited the difficulty of plowing narrow streets and the not so helpful habit of locals who threw their snow back in the middle of the street — “inadvertently,” as he tactfully put it.
Did the city learn its lesson?
On Thursday afternoon, with the storm mostly subsided, I drove around Elmhurst and Middle Village with city Department of Sanitation Assistant Chief Garrett O’Reilly, whose “snow assignment” included supervising that tricky section of Community Board 5, stretching from Maspeth to Glendale in Queens.
Were things going better than last year? “No two storms are the same,” O’Reilly said. He’d been on the job since 6 a.m., overseeing more than 40 pieces of equipment to deal with snow that hit “plowable depths” as early as 6:30 a.m.
O’Reilly said the city had added equipment to help on residential side streets, including “haulsters.” These pick-up-truck-style vehicles are more nimble than your average garbage truck and have reversible plows, meaning all the snow doesn’t have to get shoved to the right like the usual fixed plow monsters; and the trucks can make tighter turns.
“People have a right to want their streets plowed. We do understand,” said O’Reilly as we inspected his district. But, he added, “there are challenges.”
Those challenges include steep hills and a maze of narrow, one-way streets, some nearly inaccessible to all but the most skilled garbage truck drivers. So the “haulsters” were key.
Keeping the roads clear
The streets were fairly clear by the time we went by. When they weren’t, O’Reilly acknowledged that, as de Blasio had said last year, people’s shoveling habits could be making things difficult. He understood people wanting to dig their cars out by putting snow in the street, but counseled them when possible to put larger-volume sidewalk snow in their gardens or next to their cars.
Snow blowers make things more difficult, too. Approaching a man using one at the end of a block, O’Reilly rolled down his window. “Hey buddy, how you doing?” he said. “If you don’t mind, can you pile on the other side of your property?”
The man took off earmuffs. “Ok sure,” he said.
Later, we passed an iceberg-sized pile of snow smack in the middle of an otherwise-plowed street. “We’ve hit this block numerous times,” O’Reilly said. A man was shoveling snow near the pile. Again, the chief politely asked whether the shoveler might put some of it elsewhere. The man complained, saying the big pile wasn’t his. “My car’s in the garage.”
“Ok,” O’Reilly said. “You have a good day.”
In the end, it wasn’t that bad of a snowstorm. In a horrible freak accident, a doorman fell through a glass window and died while shoveling in Manhattan. That’s the kind of disaster scenario residents might fear would be more common if the city wasn’t able to keep operations running smoothly. It largely did.
Perhaps the snow politicians breathed a sigh of relief that they’d been sufficiently prepared and adequately dialed everyone up to StormCon 10. In many parts of the city, you might not even know there’d ever been a drift.
Those charged with removing the snow (or overseeing that removal) might grumble slightly at their lose-lose task. Residents inconvenienced by stuck cars or snow-throwing admonitions might quibble that they weren’t getting their fair shake. But the great storm of 2017 troubled New York City only briefly with its decent but not debilitating height. Soon it will be spring.