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New York City Under Attack Again

Three-and-a-half inches of rain fell here yesterday, causing immense chaos and raising once again the question of whether the city is prepared for the possibility of something worse, like six inches of rain, not to mention a major terrorist attack.

One of the critical issues raised by yesterday’s episode is the way information is distributed in a crisis. As I noted after a steam pipe burst in Manhattan on June 18, New Yorkers were left in the dark about the nature of the blast whose plume was visible for miles. The news media did not get on the story for at least an hour, and the city did not have any means of its own by which to address the public.

Responsibility for yesterday’s disarray—in which most of the city’s subway system was out of commission for half a day—fell on the MTA, a body whose structure is designed to let elected officials escape blame for its failures, but which ultimately is under the control of Governor Spitzer. Whether the subway infrastructure can be fixed so as to avoid recurrent shut-downs is not the central issue. The flow of information—or lack thereof—is.

Yesterday, once again, the authorities were unable to provide information to the public for hours. The MTA’s website was not updated until 11 AM, more than five hours after the storm had passed. At the same time, a lack of bandwidth kept information-hungry commuters from tuning in. Faulty computer equipment is now being blamed, but that was hardly the only deficiency. The New York Times reports that for much of the morning, the MTA’s subway information office “had only one employee on duty; the others were trying to get in.”

Even if the MTA failed abysmally, the city could have stepped in and played a critical role. But Mayor Bloomberg’s much vaunted 311 telephone-information system was also overloaded with callers who could not get through. The lucky ones, like me, who did reach operators were transferred to an MTA number featuring a busy signal. The city’s website, too, was left unchanged; throughout most of the day, it displayed information on alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations.

At this point, one does not expect much of anything from Governor Spitzer, who is both new to office and preoccupied with his self-inflicted political wounds. Mayor Bloomberg is something else. He made billions by finding innovative ways to provide information to those who need it via “Bloomberg boxes.” But the city has either not yet put in place even the most rudimentary emergency-communications tools, or it has not figured out how to activate them in an emergency.

Either way, New York is not remotely prepared to deal with the havoc that could be wreaked by another Muhammad Atta. Before a truly major disaster strikes, the city sorely needs a Bloomberg-box system of its own.