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Officials can’t let weather surprises paralyze metro area

Traffic comes to a standstill on Pinelawn Road

Traffic comes to a standstill on Pinelawn Road in Melville as the first snow of the season hits Long Island. Photo Credit: Shelby Knowles

Six inches of snow, even in November, should not immobilize the metropolitan area.

And yet, that’s what happened Thursday afternoon and evening on Long Island and, more severely, in New York City.

State and local officials were caught flat-footed. They blamed forecasts that incorrectly predicted a dusting of snow changing to rain, and the storm’s evening rush timing — certainly legitimate complications. But it’s time to stop saying it was an unusually worse or poorly predicted winter storm. There are lessons to be learned, changes to be made.

Starting with this: Such storms are becoming more frequent, more intense and less predictable. We shouldn’t be surprised when a 1-inch dusting turns into heavy, wet snow, or when trees with leaves come down from an early snow. Emergency management officials, along with those in schools, transportation departments and public transit, should prepare for the unpredictable, and respond to the unexpected.

They clearly were not ready last week.

Long Island got relatively lucky this time. We didn’t see hundreds of cars stuck in Suffolk County, as we did nearly six years ago. This time, the biggest problems occurred in the five boroughs, particularly after accidents shut multiple lanes of the George Washington Bridge and Gowanus Expressway. Both incidents, and others, led to a cascade of horrific delays on major arteries.

But the region’s political, sanitation and transportation officials could have and should have done better. They must prepare for scenarios other than what’s predicted. That means warning residents when more snow is possible — and when a larger storm becomes apparent, saying so. It means positioning more equipment so it can be out in force as the storm’s breadth becomes clear, sending out police to make the ways for salt spreaders and plows, and putting chains on city bus tires. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, too, has to rethink its communication and preparedness strategies to avoid bus terminal overcrowding and better treat the bridges. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority seemed to benefit from work it did to prepare the subways and Long Island Rail Road, but should analyze the delays it had to see what more can be done.

Then there are the schools — perhaps the worst offenders. On Long Island and in New York City, children in school buses were stranded or delayed for up to a horrifying 12 hours. In many cases, parents had no idea where their young children were, because many school buses, especially in New York City, lack GPS tracking devices. That has to change — quickly. In the city, the Department of Education just this year started a transportation Twitter account, supposedly to communicate better with parents. Yet the day of the storm, it was barely used.

Put it all together, and you get a perfect storm of bad predictions, bad weather and bad choices.

The region’s leaders can correct one of those three — and they must start now. — The editorial board


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