Questions surrounding any public crisis hew closely to the schedule of the crisis itself. So when Hurricane Sandy was approaching the East Coast last week, everyone wanted to know whether the affected areas were adequately prepared. During the storm itself, people wondered what the damage was going to be. And in the wake of the storm, all attention is paid to reaction and recovery efforts. Since those efforts now appear to have hit some unexpected problems, it’s natural that the earlier questions have receded to the background.
But they shouldn’t be forgotten. Because for all the comparisons of Michael Bloomberg to Rudy Giuliani, who led New York—and the nation—through the early hours after 9/11, it’s worth recalling that a big part of the reason Giuliani responded so well was because he was intent on getting the city and its employees ready for anything. When that “anything” struck, as it did a couple of times in Giuliani’s tenure, America’s Mayor struck back. It is here, too, where Bloomberg fails spectacularly to fill the shoes of Rudy Giuliani.
As Fred Siegel writes in his book on the Giuliani years, the mayor “had been talking and thinking about the problem of terrorism—something to which most New Yorkers were oblivious—from literally his first day in office. The city’s largely successful response to 9/11 was the product of years of preparation.”
And it wasn’t just preparation for terrorism. Siegel writes of the behind-the-scenes work that readied the city for just about any anything conceivable. In 1999, a heat wave led to power outages in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan that totaled about 300,000. Giuliani took action to prevent the power outages from taking out Brooklyn as well, and then rallied the city to the Heights. Rather than the looting that had taken place in New York in the past, the city remained under control with Giuliani working around the clock and winning the cooperation of the residents of the Heights.
The city’s Department of Health developed a “syndromic surveillance system” to prepare for chemical or biological attacks. When West Nile virus hit the city (also in 1999), the response was immediate and helped contain the virus. New York’s response, as in other cases, was praised as a model as other cities battled West Nile that year.
Leading up to the Y2K scare, the city, led by Giuliani, Jerry Hauer, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, and Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota (who now heads the city’s MTA), prepared for several possible terrorist attacks and other emergencies on New Year’s, including a gas attack at the World Trade Center that assumed 1,000 injured. Lhota said they practiced and prepared like a football team. “If any city was ready for trouble,” Siegel writes, “it was New York.”
On New Year’s Eve, while Giuliani was overseeing events in Times Square, Siegel writes:
Hauer and Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota were in the World Trade Center command post accompanied by three hundred crisis managers from city departments, Con Edison, Verizon, the Red Cross, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, and the National Guard. And although the public didn’t know it, the National Guard had been quietly pre-positioning in Brooklyn as part of an emergency plan for evacuating Manhattan.
Nothing happened that night. But Giuliani’s team and the city “had passed the test,” Siegel writes. “Gotham was ready for a future emergency.”
So while it’s true that Bloomberg’s response pales in comparison to that of Giuliani, it’s not just the ability to inspire and the natural instincts of a leader that separate the two men. Stories like this one in the New York Times, which discuss the warnings that the city was vulnerable to a storm like Sandy long before this year’s hurricane hit radar screens, will likely follow Bloomberg as well. And the lack of preparation will be especially inexcusable for Bloomberg, who has stomped around claiming that the storm was a result of the very climate change he has been warning about for years. If he was so sure about coming climate change storms, why wasn’t he ready for this one?
This is the most damning paragraph from that story:
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is known worldwide for his broad environmental vision. But one former official said it had been difficult to move from theoretical planning to concrete actions, and it was hoped that the storm this week would change that.
Bloomberg knew the dangers, according to this official, and spent years talking about it in the abstract. But he didn’t take any concrete action, instead satisfied to wag his finger at others.
So yes, Bloomberg is an underwhelming leader in the city’s time of need. But if these reports are true, he has failed this city on a much deeper, and much more consequential, level. Though Bloomberg obviously didn’t learn from his predecessor’s successes, New Yorkers can only hope that the next mayor learns from Bloomberg’s failures.