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De Blasio's first test: Manage snowstorm response

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is briefed

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is briefed on snow preparation by Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty at the Sanitation Department's Operations office in lower Manhattan. (Jan. 2, 2014) Credit: Rob Bennett

Keenly aware how botched snow cleanups have dogged predecessors, Mayor Bill de Blasio Thursday vowed "to be on top of the action" as a big snowstorm threatened New York City and posed an early test of his managerial skill.

De Blasio, a Democrat sworn in Wednesday as New York's 109th mayor, spent much of his first full day on the job meeting with aides about the snow, touring the command center overseeing plowing, and mulling decisions ranging from emergency declarations to school closures. He said he'd gone to bed Wednesday and awakened Thursday thinking about the snow, and predicted he probably wouldn't get a good night's sleep.

"It would have been nice to have a nice, calm first day, but we have snow on our mind and we are focused like a laser," said de Blasio, whose other key event on his first working day as mayor was to swear in William Bratton as the NYPD's 42nd commissioner.

De Blasio said he would decide early Friday morning whether to close schools, and urged motorists to avoid driving. New York City Transit warned of delays and canceled express subway service Thursday night, making all lines local.

De Blasio has not picked his commissioners for fire, sanitation, health and emergency management, but the Bloomberg administration officials from those departments have stayed on.

"We got the dream team here," he said. "We can take on any storm, anywhere."

With Sanitation Department Commissioner John J. Doherty at his side, de Blasio rattled off facts and figures about snow-clearance efforts: 450 salt spreaders loaded; 1,700 trucks equipped with plows; 6,000 miles of city streets to be cleared.

"We have to get it right," de Blasio said. "There's no question about it."

Snowstorms -- and mayoral administrations' failed responses to them -- are the stuff of political lore. Mayor John Lindsay in 1969 left Queens unplowed for days, leaving people there virtual prisoners in their homes beneath 15 inches. When he finally toured the borough, his limousine couldn't navigate the snow, and a woman called him a "bum."

In 2010, Bloomberg was nowhere to be found during a blizzard -- he was in Bermuda, as it turns out -- and a slow response to unplowed streets in the outer boroughs was a blot on his legacy.

"Mike Bloomberg probably had 25 snowstorms to deal with in his tenure at least, and one of them didn't work quite right and that's the only one people talk about," said Bill Cunningham, Bloomberg's former communications director. "And of course, when we think of Mayor Lindsay, all we can think about is how Queens couldn't dig out of the snow."

The lesson? "New York is clearly a city of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?" Cunningham said.

For his part, de Blasio slammed Bloomberg during the 2010 storm after de Blasio's own block in Park Slope went unplowed for days. Now, clearing the streets is de Blasio's job.

"I'll be a lot calmer when the storm system blows out to sea," de Blasio said. "I'll tell you that."

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