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On Bloomberg

October 30th, 2012 - 11:31 am

Here’s my “update” to Saturday night’s “Get The Hell Out” post:

Now that New York City has flooded, and this post is getting a lot of attention in retrospect, I figured I should update it to address the fact that Bloomberg did, in the end, belatedly order the evacuation of Zone A. I can imagine people saying that since Bloomberg did, after all, order (part of) the evacuation I was demanding, I am now damning him unfairly in hindsight for not doing more.

That is completely incorrect — nothing I’m saying is hindsight-based — and I’d like to explain why, by citing my other contemporaneous comments on the matter.

Although I did not update this post when Bloomberg announced the Zone A evacuation, I did rejoice on Twitter when it happened. But I also added: “Evacuation of Zone A unquestionably should have been ordered yesterday; we should be thinking about Zone B now. But, better late than never.” That was Sunday morning. An hour later, I reiterated my stance that Zone B residents should evacuate. That night, I said I didn’t know why only Zone A was being evacuated, and that I was “very concerned about Zone B folks. #fingerscrossed” Then, on the morning of the storm, long before its impact on NYC was known, I wrote that Bloomberg “should resign in disgrace if Zone A (or B) folks die b/c of delayed/no evac order.”

As of this writing, I do not know whether any “Zone B” areas where flooded by Sandy. Regardless, if the only thing Bloomberg did wrong was “evacuate Zone A, but not Zone B,” I’d chalk that up to an area where reasonable people can disagree. I do not believe that the failure to evacuate Zone B is an impeachable or resignation-worthy offense. I believe that I would have made a different call, and I did urge people in Zone B to get out — but if that were the only area where I differed with Bloomberg, I wouldn’t be calling for his head.

However, there are two far more serious issues: one relating to Zone A, the other relating to what Bloomberg said in his Saturday press conference.

First of all, as I said in this post on Saturday, there was, by that point, absolutely no question that Zone A needed to be evacuated — that’s not debatable — and there was no reason whatsoever for Bloomberg to delay in giving the order until Sunday morning. All the information he needed was available Saturday; he should have ordered the evacuation then. And this isn’t just arguing about the number of angels on the head of a pin; his delay had consequences. He did not give the order to evacuate Zone A until around midday Sunday (approximately 11:30 AM), the day before the storm. The subway was shutting down at 7:00 PM Sunday. That left subway-dependent residents 7 1/2 hours to get out… and it’s not like Bloomberg had been prepping them the previous night, emphasizing that he might well order an evacuation, so they should pack their bags and be ready. He pretty clearly indicated Saturday that he did NOT, at that time, intend to evacuate the city, only paying lip service to the idea of possibly reassessing, if necessary, in the morning. Moreover, nothing really changed overnight, in terms of the forecast; what happened, most likely, was that somebody got Bloomberg’s ear and convinced him that an evacuation was necessary, so he changed his tune Sunday. But his reconsideration came too late for many residents. In addition to the subway problem, many residents had undoubtedly made a firm decision by midday Sunday to stay put, and were not interested in revisiting it. Bloomberg was asking them to scramble and change their plans all around at the last minute, after giving no indication the previous day that he was likely to do so. It was inevitable that many would choose to stay put, defying the evacuation order, who might have left if given more notice.

Now, I realize that I wrote above, on Saturday night, that a Sunday-morning evacuation would “redeem” Bloomberg because it would “probably still [leave] enough time for most people to get out.” However, first of all, I was thinking of a morning announcement a little earlier than 11:30 in the morning. Second, the fact remains that fewer people are going to leave on 7 1/2 hours’ notice than on 24-36 hours’ notice. So Bloomberg’s inexcusable decision not to evacuate Zone A on Saturday, even though partially redeemed by his Sunday change of heart, is not totally redeemed, because the earlier poor decision still had negative consequences. There is no doubt in my mind that more people would have evacuated if Bloomberg had ordered them out Saturday. Not everyone, of course. But more people.

Second of all — and this is actually the more critical point — the statements Bloomberg made Saturday about the surge itself were completely inaccurate and indefensible, as I made clear contemporaneously in this post. Let’s review what he said. He indicated that the decision not to evacuate was “based on the nature of this storm.” Specifically, he said:

Although we’re expecting a large surge of water, it is not expected to be a tropical storm or hurricane-type surge. With this storm, we’ll likely see a slow pileup of water rather than a sudden surge, which is what you would expect from a hurricane, and which we saw with Irene 14 months ago. So it will be less dangerous.

To summarize, he was asserting that Sandy’s surge would be “less dangerous” than Irene’s surge, and those of other hurricanes, because it would be a “slow pileup” instead of a “sudden surge.” THIS WAS ALWAYS COMPLETE NONSENSE. IT NEVER MADE ANY SENSE AT ALL. IT NEVER HAD ANY SCIENTIFIC BASIS WHATSOEVER. Again, this is not 20/20 hindsight — read what I wrote above, on Saturday:

Let me be clear: I have literally no f***ing idea what Bloomberg is talking about. As closely as I’ve been following Sandy, I have not seen anyone else — literally not a single meteorologist or any other person — suggest that Sandy will produce a “slow pile up of water” rather than a typical “sudden” storm surge. On the contrary…

All storm surges are, in their initial stages, somewhat slow, gradual pile-ups of water … which then rapidly peak when the storm’s center moves ashore. That’s exactly what’s to be expected here. Bloomberg’s idea of a uniquely slow drip-drip-drip surge doesn’t even make logical sense, and has no scientific basis that I’ve heard anyone articulate. Is he high? Has he lost is mind? I am simply stunned and baffled by this ignorant pronouncement, which will cause people to become complacent, and thus endanger lives.

Whatever Bloomberg’s rationale, he’s just absolutely dead wrong … Worse than Nagin? I think you can make that case, as of now.

It’s also worth noting that I was hardly a voice in the wilderness on this. As noted in this post Saturday, numerous meteorologists agreed with me. In fact, I really did not see anyone sticking up for Bloomberg. The unanimity was striking.

And you know what? This stuff matters. I recognize that individual citizens are ultimately responsible for their own decisions to evacuate or not, and Michael Bloomberg didn’t prevent anyone from evacuating. But unless you don’t think public officials’ statements and actions matter at all — in which case you can never criticize or praise an official for their handling of a disaster, because they’re just totally superfluous — surely you have to acknowledge that, at least on the margins, it matters how much urgency an official conveys (and that paying lip service to the concept of urgency isn’t the same as consistently projecting an attitude of urgency).

With Sandy, there were countless accounts of New York residents not taking the storm seriously because they figured it was overhyped and “Irene wasn’t that bad, so it’ll be fine.” What those residents needed was someone to puncture that false narrative and give them good advice…and then it’s up to them whether to take it. Instead, they got a mayor reinforcing their inaccurate beliefs about the severity of the storm, even as he also said that it was still dangerous. Basically, he was sending mixed messages — and people who are already skeptical, who then receive a mixed message, are likely to remain skeptical. So in that regard, Bloomberg failed to lead.

The bottom line is this. If Bloomberg had properly conveyed the magnitude of the coming disaster — which was completely foreseen; it was not “unexpected” at all — residents would have had more, better information about how to handle it, and then the ball would have been totally in their court, and Bloomberg wouldn’t be subject to any criticism for poor decisions by individual residents who ignored his good advice. But instead, Bloomberg gave out completely misleading, scientifically inaccurate information, presented as “fact” (and inevitably regurgitated in the media, as authoritative-sounding executive officials’ statements generally are), which inevitably reinforced the pre-existing skepticism of those who felt Sandy was nothing but a hypestorm. Thus, Bloomberg increased complacency about the storm. His initial evacuation decision fed into this same complacency, and his belated partial change of heart came too late to fully undo the damage.

These two things, combined, are the reason I believe Bloomberg was a complete and utter failure here, and why I have argued that accountability demands that “Hizzoner” no longer have that title (just as accountability demanded that Ray Nagin resign or be voted out; how he got re-elected, I’ll never understand). Bloomberg, like Nagin, has failed in one of his most basic roles.

And no, I can’t prove that a specific person or persons changed their preparation decisions based on Bloomberg, nor can I estimate how many did so. But that’s not really the point, because again, Bloomberg isn’t responsible for individual residents’ decisions. What he’s responsible for are his own words and actions. Here, he was in a position to influence people’s decisions — whether or not they actually listened — and he used that position of influence, at least in part, in such a way as to needlessly create or exacerbate complacency, thereby endangering lives. That alone is enough to warrant some harsh criticism and, I would argue, some sort of accountability.

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