As Thursday dawned, subway service throughout New York City had finally returned to normal. Snow drifts that had built up in the outdoor trenches of the Sea Beach and Brighton Lines in Brooklyn were cleared; station platforms were shoveled; and entrances finally salted. Bus service remains detoured as surface streets are still chock full of snow, but getting around town can proceed apace.
Yet, the fallout from this week’s snow-inspired disaster is continuing and will do so for the foreseeable future. Both The Daily News and The Times investigated the city’s and the MTA’s responses to the blizzard, and these reports jibe with what I’ve heard from other sources. Essentially, because of a worse-than-expected storm and a push to keep overtime costs low, the MTA was not prepared for the snow. The results were disastrous for the city and its transit network.
The story begins early last week when, as The Times notes, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm outlook on Tuesday. As it’s December, few reacted with urgency, and by Friday, snow predictions were holding at six inches. Late on Christmas afternoon, the weather service issued a winter storm warning, and the city was slow to react. “As of about 5 p.m. on Christmas Day, the forecast called for about a foot of accumulation, which is not uncommon and which is not a basis for a snow emergency declaration,” Seth Solomonow, a DOT spokesman, said. I can see how this story unfolded simply by looking out the window at the sidewalks and streets below.
At the MTA, the agency was similarly slow to react. The Times reports:
On Friday morning, top managers at New York City Transit gathered for a ritual that occurs every weekday from November through April: to make a decision, based on weather forecasts, about whether to put in place precautionary measures in the case of a winter storm.
The managers can choose from one of four plans, prescribed each year in a telephone-book-size manual that lays out, in 300 pages of excruciating detail, the exact process for keeping the nation’s largest public transportation system functioning in the event of inclement weather. Plan 1, the lowest level of preparation, takes effect when the temperature drops below 30 degrees; Plan 4, the full-press emergency response, is activated when at least five inches of snow is expected.
By that morning, the Weather Service had been warning of a significant winter storm starting on Sunday afternoon. But at 11 a.m., the managers issued a proclamation of Plan 1. Officials, who had been tracking the storm since Wednesday, believed that the city would be spared the brunt of the storm.
The decision would have far-reaching consequences: because of a quirk in the transit agency’s system, the plan chosen on Friday stays in effect all weekend. And the agency would not officially make the switch to Plan 4 until 11 a.m. on Sunday, when snow was already building up on the streets.
Because the agency had opted for the modest response, several important aspects of rescue operations and disaster preparedness — diesel trains and other heavy machinery, like trains that blow snow off tracks or spray antifreeze on the third rail — were not automatically deployed.
On Sunday afternoon, the agency tried to institute its Plan 4 protocols, but by then, it was too late. Buses had been dispatched and were finding roads impassable. Due to very strong winds and high snow drifts, at-grade subway routes were felled by snow. Passengers were trapped on subway trains miles away from their destinations and with winds gusting past 40 miles per hour outside. “I’m appalled,” one Transit manager said to The Daily News. “I’ve never seen us fall apart this way.”
In the aftermath of the 2007 rain storm that left the system flooded and the MTA’s website offline for much of the day, the authority instituted new communications protocols and rebuilt its air grates along flood-prone areas. Until Sunday, it hadn’t suffered a major weather-related outage in over 41 months.
This week, though, the snow shut down the city’s transportation lifeblood. As it became impossible to drive on the city’s surface streets, the subways shut down as well. It was the perfect storm with an imperfect response ahead of time, and the MTA, working hard to keep overtime as low as possible, wasn’t ready to take an expensive plunge at the end of the year to keep subways running better than they did.
Walder has promised to investigate why. “In the coming weeks, we will reflect and look to make improvements for the future,” he wrote to his staff. Heads will probably roll, and policies will change. They have to; after all, the response to this storm couldn’t be any worse, and odds are good that it won’t be the last big snow of the winter.