The December blizzard that choked mobility in Queens for almost a week and the seemingly endless, record-breaking January snowfall has been plowed into the past to make way for spring. But officials are still trying to make up for the city’s disastrously poor response by proposing new legislation and seeking federal assistance.
This winter, New York City spent nearly double its allotted budget for plowing and snow cleanup efforts. The city budgeted $38.9 million for snow removal and maintenance, and spent roughly $75.7 million. Finally, Queens is set for some reprieve—assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been approved for the borough.
On March 9, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) announced that President Barack Obama had expanded a major disaster declaration for the State of New York issued after the Christmas blizzard. The declaration now includes snow removal assistance for Queens.
“This storm was one of the worst New York City has seen in years, but by expanding the disaster declaration to include snow removal costs for Queens, we can help make sure hard-pressed New Yorkers don’t have to shoulder these clean-up costs alone,” Schumer said.
The original FEMA declaration, released mid-February, denied emergency funding to Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, while providing assistance to Staten Island and Nassau County. Queens and Bronx counties were added to the original disaster declaration after the state requested new damage assessments.
According to FEMA External Affairs Officer Dana Cudmore, both counties were briefed on the process for requesting specific federal assistance on March 14 in Albany. Cudmore said eligible reimbursements include the cost of plowing, sanding, employee overtime and related expenses—FEMA provides 75 percent of the eligible costs. A damage assessment for Brooklyn is currently underway, he added.
Queens Borough President Helen Marshall welcomed FEMA’s decision and praised Shumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for their efforts in getting the disaster assistance.
“Many communities were virtually locked in for days by snow-covered streets, injuries resulted from falls and most tragically, there was a loss of life in the storm’s aftermath,” Marshall said. “The fact that Queens is now eligible for [FEMA] funds will help alleviate the burden that snow removal dumped on our cash-strapped city.”
While the FEMA assistance may offer some relief, the snow saga is still far from over—a series of winter emergency bills seems to be frozen in the City Council after the Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office voiced strong opposition to the proposed legislation currently stalled in the Council’s Transportation Committee.
The Transportation Committee was scheduled to consider 16 snow removal bills on March 9, but none were approved to be sent to the full Council. Elizabeth Weinstein, director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, rejected each piece of legislation at the meeting.
The bills include requiring the Mayor’s office to notify the public of disruptions to city services because of severe weather, requiring plans for snow removal from curbs, sidewalks and bus stations, and the creation of a snow removal volunteer registry.
One bill also calls for the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to appoint borough supervisors and regulate requests for aid.
Weinstein said each bill had its flaws, citing redundancy in the bills with current regulations, or the concern—in the case of a volunteer registry—that the city might put itself at unnecessary liability. She said some efforts should be left to community groups or non-profits.
“These proposals contain worthwhile ideas that address many of what the administration’s failures have been thus far,” said Weinstein. “However, we are concerned by some of the unintended consequences some of these bills are likely to have.”
Weinstein explained that the city already has the Winter Weather Emergency Plan, which was updated by the OEM in 2006—though not released to the public because of its specificity on inter-departmental operations. While not used effectively in December, the plan extensively regulates the city’s snow-disaster response.
Additionally, Weinstein said the Mayor’s 15-part action plan—released in January and being implemented by the city—would be an effective tool in preventing a similar breakdown of snow removal in the future. The Mayor’s plan calls for more accountability, transparency and a streamlining of emergency declaration and response.
Written By David Harvey