Weather Nerd

Is the mayor of New York an idiot?

On Saturday night, August 27, 2005, during the early stages of my & my old blog’s 15 minutes of fame as Hurricane Katrina neared the Gulf coast, I published a blog post titled “The mayor of New Orleans is an idiot.” I wrote:

I can’t emphasize enough what a bad decision I think it is for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to delay the mandatory evacuation order until tomorrow morning. … Landfall is expected to occur around midday Monday. So by waiting until tomorrow morning, Mayor Nagin will be giving people scarcely 24 hours to get out. Perhaps he’s hoping to ease the evacuation traffic jams by starting things off with a trickle, but that’s awfully risky. Will Ray Nagin go down in history as the mayor who fiddled while New Orleans drowned? Could be.

Two days short of six years later, with a big-time hurricane hurdling toward a Sunday strike on his city, is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg making the same mistake? He has announced that he will wait until Saturday morning to decide whether to order a mandatory evacuation of the “Zone A” low-lying areas that are home to roughly 250,000 people. So, like Nagin, he’ll be ordering an evacuation on the very day before the storm’s landfall or closest approach, and with perhaps 12 hours or less before conditions begin to deteriorate. That seems pretty foolish. Heck, I thought late Friday was pretty late to get started. Saturday morning? Really?!

Of course, some things set Bloomberg’s situation apart from Nagin’s. First of all, his city doesn’t sit below sea level, and isn’t liable to become a total post-apocalyptic hellhole for weeks after a direct hit. Don’t get me wrong, the aftermath could be quite unpleasant — but, as I said before, not so bad that all 8 million New Yorkers need to leave. (By contrast, all of New Orleans really should have evacuated.) So, given the smaller number of people involved, perhaps Bloomberg’s planners have assured him that 12-18 hours is enough time. I’m skeptical, but certainly, they have access to information I don’t, and hey, perhaps they’re right. Maybe starting with voluntary evacuations now — and letting the surrounding vulnerable coastal areas, e.g. in Long Island and New Jersey, evacuate first — will make things easier and safer. Maybe.

I hope, though, that Bloomberg & co. have taken a few things into account. First, an order mandating that 250,000 people evacuate won’t merely put 250,000 people on the roads. A lot of people on higher ground, who don’t technically need to evacuate, will undoubtedly feel that the mayor’s evacuation order is their cue to leave as well. When the mayor tells a good chunk of the city to Get The Hell Out, that’s going to be jarring and frightening, and lots of people will freak out and leave. Nobody can know exactly how many will do this, but I bet the number is non-negligible. And the longer New York waits, the better the odds of roads being overwhelmed, leading to the nightmare scenario of folks stuck on the roads during a hurricane. (“But this is New York!” you protest. “People won’t take the roads, they’ll take mass transit!” No, they won’t.)

Second, what if Irene intensifies more than expected, and suddenly a Category 2 landfall near NYC is in play? That would greatly expand the amount of territory, and thus presumably the number of people, affected by an evacuation order, since it would require “Zone B” to get out too. You certainly wouldn’t want to wait until Saturday morning to start evacuating both zones.

Third, what about people in vulnerable high-rises? Usually, the saying is “run from the water, hide from the wind,” but depending on the forecast track, folks in residential high-rises may well need to run from the wind. Is that factored into the evacuation timetable, too?

(Personally, for what it’s worth, if I were in a vulnerable part of NYC – or anywhere else in Irene’s path – I would make a decision right now about whether to evacuate, assuming the worst-case track. If the answer is “yes,” I would leave tonight, or first thing tomorrow. I’d beat the rush, avoid the traffic jam, and get the Hell out of Dodge Gotham. But that’s just me.)

Bottom line, I’m not prepared to outright condemn Bloomberg here, because the situation is a little murkier than it was with New Orleans, and I know I don’t have access to all the information that the decision-makers do. But I am highly, highly skeptical that this delay was the right call.

One thing I know is the wrong call is the decision to play the Jets-Giants preseason NFL game on Saturday, albeit with an accelerated kickoff time of 2pm instead of 7pm. Playing this game at all on Saturday is absolutely absurd, full stop. Saturday should be a day for evacuations and last-minute preparations, and that’s it. Adding pre- and post-game traffic to the evacuation traffic is beyond irresponsible, and even worse is the message that this sends to the public: that it’s business as usual, the hurricane is no big deal, let’s go watch a football game!

Look, I love football. But let me be clear. Going forward with the Jets-Giants game on Saturday is an unbelievably terrible, inexcusably irresponsible, utterly indefensible decision, and it must be overturned. I strongly urge Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie and Michael Bloomberg to use the power of their offices to convince the NFL to call off this game, and if the NFL refuses to cooperate, I urge them to publicly shame the league into doing so. Anything less would be a failure of leadership. It’s an utter absurdity that going forward with the game is even being contemplated under the circumstances.