Front loaders clear snow from Broadway in preparation of the Times Square New Year’s Eve 2011 celebration, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
NEW YORK (AP) — With many streets still unplowed, New Yorkers are griping that their billionaire mayor is out of touch and has failed at the basic task of keeping the city running, while New Jersey’s governor is taking heat for vacationing at Disney World during the crisis.
The fallout against two politicians who style themselves as take-charge guys is building in the aftermath of the Christmas-weekend blizzard that clobbered the Northeast, with at least one New Jersey newspaperman noting Gov. Chris Christie’s absence in a column headlined: “Is Sunday’s storm Christie’s Katrina?”
Across New York, complaints have mounted about unplowed streets, stuck ambulances and outer-borough neighborhoods neglected by the Bloomberg administration.
“When he says New York, he means Manhattan,” said Hayden Hunt of Brooklyn, a borough of 2.6 million people where many streets were not cleared for days. “He’s the man in charge. … It’s foolishness, come on.”
Bloomberg, a third-term Republican-turned-independent who is occasionally mentioned as a long-shot presidential candidate, spent the first day after the storm on the defensive, testily dismissing complaints and insisting the cleanup of the 2-foot snowfall was going fine. But he later adopted a more conciliatory tone.
On Wednesday, as stories began to surface about people who may have suffered serious medical problems while waiting for ambulances, the mayor was his most apologetic, without actually apologizing.
“We did not do as good a job as we wanted to do or as the city has a right to expect, and there’s no question — we are an administration that has been built on accountability,” he said. “When it works, it works and we take credit, and when it doesn’t work, we stand up there and say, `OK, we did it. We’ll try to find out what went wrong.'”
The city sanitation commissioner promised that every last street would be plowed by Thursday morning.
Christie, meanwhile, has not been heard from publicly since he left New Jersey on vacation with his wife and four children. His spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said that the governor — who has also been mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate — has been briefed while in Florida, and that the emergency services have functioned well across the state.
“This was definitely a big snow, but we are a Northeastern state, and we get plenty of snow, including heavy hits like this, and we’ll get through this just as we always have,” Drewniak said.
Christie’s absence at the same time his lieutenant governor was also out of state left New Jersey’s Senate president to deal with the storm, which stranded thousands of travelers and left highways strewn with stuck and abandoned cars.
“They’re both entitled to a vacation, but not at the same time,” said Sen. Dick Codey, a Democrat who was acting governor for 15 months after Jim McGreevey resigned in 2004.
Meanwhile, New York’s transportation system was operating closer and closer to normal. Most subway service knocked out by snowdrifts on elevated tracks resumed. The metropolitan area’s three major airports had their busiest day since the blizzard, and more stranded passengers managed to fly home.
But some lashed out. About 100 people surged the Qatar Airways ticket counter at Kennedy Airport after airline representatives tried to persuade them to take a bus to Washington, after days of waiting for flights to take them back to Southeast Asia.
The complaints against Bloomberg and Christie are all the more remarkable because of the reputations they have cultivated.
Bloomberg, who made his fortune from the financial news company that bears his name, has portrayed himself as adept at cutting through bureaucracy and politics-as-usual to get things done. Christie has become a hero in the GOP for his willingness to do battle with teachers and other powerful interests.
In the aftermath of the storm, many have noted the contrast with Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, who has been on the streets with a shovel, clearing sidewalks and freeing stuck ambulances.
“I have not been out with a snow shovel, but I have been answering e-mails,” Bloomberg said Wednesday, when the comparison was raised between him and Booker.
New Yorkers have long been willing to cut the mayor slack over his lack of touchy-feely sensitivities, in part because of his smooth performance during several crises. He took office not quite four months after the Sept. 11 attacks and kept the city functioning during a major blackout in 2003, a paralyzing transit strike in 2005 and a deep recession.
But history has also shown that snowstorms can make or break political careers.
After a 1969 storm dropped 15 inches of snow on New York, streets in the outer boroughs were not cleared for days. The episode became a symbol of what some said was Mayor John Lindsay’s Manhattan-centric attitude. He barely won re-election that year, and the story haunted him forever.
Bloomberg, when asked Wednesday about the perception that he, too, does not care about the areas outside Manhattan, said: “I care about all parts of this city. … It isn’t that we don’t care; it’s just that you have to do as much good as you can with the resources you have.”
City officials said they plan to review their handling of the snowstorm more intensely after all the streets are clear. The explanations given so far range from the unexpectedly rapid snowfall to the unusual number of vehicles that became stuck in the snow, preventing snowplows from getting through.
The mayor promised a closer look at the city’s 911 system, which logged tens of thousands of calls during the storm — including nearly 50,000 in a day, one of the highest totals on record. Emergency officials said they couldn’t reach every call immediately, including a call about a woman in labor. Her baby later died.
The criticism may not pose much danger to Bloomberg’s future because he insists he won’t run for president in 2012 or any other public office. But he still has three years left as mayor, and it could dent his reputation as a manager.
As for Christie, it remains to be seen how his being absent during a crisis could affect his political career.
As The Asbury Park Press put it in an editorial Tuesday, the residents of one town where streets remained clogged “will not soon forget the days of waiting for their roadways to be cleared and should be insistent in their demands to get clear answers to the question, `What went wrong?'”
Contributing to this story were Associated Press writers David B. Caruso, Samantha Henry, Meghan Barr, Karen Matthews in New York and Beth DeFalco and Angela Delli Santi in Trenton, N.J.