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Snowed Under in NYC: What's Up?

Source: NY Times

Posted on 29 Dec 2010

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Everyone in New York City is asking (or yelling): How is the city doing to clear its more than 6,000 streets in the wake of Sunday's snowstorm (as compared to other snowstorms)? The answer is not that cut and dry, it seems.

Even Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is devoted to technology and the use of information to solve problems in real time, is not getting the answers he needs to tell the public, as records maintained by the city’s Department of Sanitation are notably incomplete and potentially misleading.

The department, which is responsible for snow removal, catalogs streets as plowed or salted — and neither mean cleared. It is possible, then, that the block one lives on may have been plowed or salted by a sanitation truck, and been recorded as such by the department, but it could still be challenging to navigate. The inability to offer any clear claims of success, then, left a vacuum that was filled with residents’ angry anecdotes Tuesday.

The murkiness — city officials can make claims that do not seem to match reality on the streets — partly results from the fact that the Sanitation Department starts counting the streets it has plowed from the start of a storm, meaning a street could be freed of some or most of its snow only to be covered again later.

“The department does not categorize streets as cleared,” said Vito Turso, an agency spokesman. “We monitor that they have been successfully plowed or salted.”

“Then our snow supervisors constantly monitor the condition of the streets and address any additional snow accumulations that may occur,” Mr. Turso added.

He said that as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, according to the latest figures that were available from the Sanitation Department, the agency had plowed 99 percent of the city’s primary streets, 76 percent of its secondary streets and 52 percent of its tertiary roads.

But Mr. Turso acknowledged that those numbers could not be judged in comparative context. He said he was not aware of any reports or studies from prior snowstorms kept by the Sanitation Department that document the rate at which streets were plowed by the agency as a means for evaluating its response to this blizzard.

Asked why no such historical performance reports were kept, Mr. Turso said: “If we went back to the archives, we could pull out data for our plowing efforts in past storms. But we don’t have that material in report or study form.”

He added, “In this modern age of information technology, it might be something that we would look at, because it certainly would be easier.”

Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, said in an interview that the 2006 snowstorm — when the 24-hour record for Central Park, 26.9 inches, was set — was “a benchmark” for the Sanitation Department’s response.

“We covered all city streets within about 36 hours of the last flake, meaning that they got plowed at least once,” he said.

But Mr. Nespoli said of the city’s response to Sunday’s storm: “I’ll tell you the truth: there are problems with this one. We’ll need more than 36 hours because we lost too much time. We are scratching our heads trying to figure out what happened on this storm.”