"The sudden realisation that most New Yorkers live on islands": how the city responded to Winter Storm Juno

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Image: Getty.

In New York City, the weather is political. It’s a town where people live stacked on top of one another, reliant on public services and mass transit. And in a dense region where multiple state, city, and interstate government agencies are forced to work together in tight quarters, a big storm is obviously a logistical nightmare. But these days, here in the City that Never Sleeps Because Everyone’s Too Busy Complaining, the weather is usually somebody’s fault.

Over the weekend, hype began for “Winter Storm Juno” – I’m putting this in quotes because it’s still really unclear to me why they’re naming our winter storms now – which promised to blanket most of the northeastern United States with up to 30 inches and, at the storm’s peak, gale-force winds and white-out conditions.

Snow is not an anomaly in New York City: we get several feet per year, though that’s significantly less than the rest of the state. (I was raised four hours north, in a place that is eligible for the “Golden Snowball Award”; this is scant consolation for living in a frozen wasteland eight months of the year.) Snow in the city is magical for about an hour, but then the plows come through, and massive piles of it turn a dull grey and create mystery pools of icy slush that you’ll invariably step in three to four times a day.

Yuck. Image: Getty.

And yet, the hype. The media must take its share of the responsibility: it was their dire storm preparation warnings that led to images like these on Sunday evening, or these Monday afternoon, as the snow was beginning to fall. There were a lot of not-actually-ironic jokes about a run on kale. (To be extra prepared, I bought kale and chard.)

But local government officials played their part, too. Mayor Bill de Blasio used language so hyperbolic (“My message to all New Yorkers is prepare for something worse than we have seen before…”) that the Onion published an article titled, “NYC Mayor: ‘Reconcile Yourselves With Your God, For All Will Perish In The Tempest.’” He also advised us that food delivery drivers were not “emergency vehicles”, a warning that was not heeded, according to a Times article that reads surprisingly like the Onion itself. (I suppose it’s good to have a record of the jerks who ordered take-out in a blizzard?)

But the most drastic decision was made by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced on Monday afternoon that the entire Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) transit system would be shut: commuter rails, buses, and, most surprisingly, the subway, the first time ever for a snowstorm. There would be a travel ban on the roads as well, effectively bringing the entire city to a standstill.

Reports revealed later that the decision was a unilateral one: de Blasio was only given half an hour’s notice before Cuomo went on the air to announce the closures, and the MTA, who’d said they were planning on running partial service to push snow along the tracks, were undercut as well. (Many commentators were quick to point out that the underground subway was partly built in response to an actual New York blizzard of 1888. That time round, hundreds died and the elevated infrastructure of the Gilded Age city was rendered useless by the storm.)

Shutting the subway is a dramatic move for New Yorkers with fresh memories of two hurricanes; in both cases, the system was closed in advance of the oncoming storm. Irene, in September of 2011, mostly bypassed the area, and the trains were up and running the next day; Sandy, in October of 2012, caused 43 deaths in New York City alone, most of them by drowning, and flooded every tunnel that crosses under the East River.

After Sandy, the system was down for a full, somewhat traumatic, week. When the subways are closed for cataclysmic storms, there’s a sudden realisation that residents of four out of the five New York City boroughs live on islands; we take that 24-hour transit, under and across our rivers, for granted on a daily basis. For me and many others, the post-Sandy week consisted of several hours walking each way to work, across bridges and through the sort of terrifying post-apocalyptic hellscape that is Manhattan in a blackout. No one wanted to do that again – at least, not in a blizzard.

But somewhere around 11 pm Monday evening, we all seemed to collectively notice that the snow, which had been falling pretty aggressively a few hours earlier, had stopped. We awoke to a measly eight inches. Clearing the roads overnight meant the snowplows were able to make quick work of the storm, and the trains were turned back on with little fanfare.

Businesses that had preemptively declared a snow day were rushing to get workers and customers in, though essentially everyone I know continued to “work” from home. Early estimates suggest that the subway closure cost the city $200m in economic activity.

A near-deserted subway station on Monday. Image: Getty.

All in all, the city of New York appeared unimpressed with the abundance of caution. “You can’t Monday morning quarterback* on something like the weather,” the mayor said, but that clearly wasn’t about to stop anyone. Complaints flew across social media on Tuesday morning, as mildly inconvenienced New Yorkers demanded to know how the authorities could have predicted the weather so wrongly. (Never mind that points east, out on Long Island and up through Boston and eastern New England, were pummeled with feet of snow.)

A meteorologist from the National Weather Service even took to Twitter to apologise for screwing up. “You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn’t,” Gary Szatkowski wrote. “Once again, I’m sorry.”

Swirling amid all this were the sort of local politics that really drive home that this was a New York storm. It came complete with a kind of power jockeying between the mayor and the governor (they were less eager to take blame than they had been to take charge). There was also a suggestion that the blustery warnings were meant to distract the public from the current crisis in the state government: the arrest of New York state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges. Like both De Blasio and Cuomo, Silver is a Democrat.

Were we better safe than sorry? Not having personally lost $200m in economic activity, I’d be inclined to say yes. In our last major blizzard, just after Christmas in 2010, passengers were stranded on the A train for ten hours; in Brooklyn, a woman died when an ambulance couldn’t drive down her snowy street. (Politics again: the snow wasn’t cleared quickly because of a work slowdown by the sanitation workers; Mayor Michael Bloomberg rightly took flak for the fallout.) New Yorkers did the same scoffing after Irene – imagine “Is that all you got?” in a broad New York accent – but then, Sandy took many doubtful people by surprise.

So, public opinion will likely remain split on de Blasio’s handling of the storm. Who’d have thought that the most lasting effect of the Great Blizzard of 2015 would be on a politician’s poll numbers?

*That, for the non-Americans reading, means retrospectively judging the plays in Sunday night football matches. Don't say we never teach you anything.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.