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New York City snowpocalypse fail: why weather and politics don't mix

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke bracing words to prepare his city for an epic snow storm that never materialized. The weather keeps mayors guessing, too. 

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    People walk down the middle of a street past entrances to the subway in the Park Slope neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York, early Tuesday. The city shut down the subway system in advance of the storm. Tens of millions of people along the East Coast hunkered down for a storm that for most failed to live up to predictions that it would be one of the worst they'd ever seen.
    Mark Lennihan/AP
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So much for "snowmageddon."

After battening down the hatches, closing state highways, commuter rails, and the New York City subway and bus system – "a total travel restriction ban" that even included bicycles and food deliveries in most of the busiest metropolitan region in the country – New Yorkers awoke Tuesday morning to find the predicted snowpocalypse was barely more than a pedestrian winter squall.

Even so, the winter storm continued to pound New England Tuesday morning, with blizzard conditions smacking Boston with almost 20 inches of snow, with more expected throughout the day. Nearby Framingham, Mass., already measured 30 inches of snow, and wind gusts reached 70 m.p.h. in eastern Massachusetts as coastal surges flooded some roads, according to reports.  

But from Philadelphia and up the I-95 corridor through New Jersey and New York City, the forecast of what Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday could be “the likes of which we have never seen before" were just a bit off, let’s say.

“This is a situation where the storm moved, thank God,” Mayor de Blasio told CNN early Tuesday. “It saved New York City and a lot of other places from a few very difficult days, but we had to be prepared. Better safe than sorry.”

Indeed, it’s a maxim in urban politics that filling potholes and plowing city streets are among the foremost duties of city leaders, and de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t take any chances.

“It could be a matter of life and death, and that’s not being overly dramatic,” said Governor Cuomo Monday afternoon, emphasizing that his primary motive was to keep New Yorkers safe.

And each spent most of Monday visibly at their civic helms, surrounded by their commissioners and other heads of state and city services, warning residents to stay indoors and prepare for “most likely one of the largest snowstorms in the history of this city," as de Blasio proclaimed. The mayor mobilized some 1,800 plows to keep the city’s 6,000 miles of roadways as clear as possible, even as he and governor shut down all of the areas modes of transportation.

But Cuomo and de Blasio had sprung to action based on the forecasts of the National Weather Service, which had issued a blizzard warning for the teeming region, saying the coming storm could be a “crippling and potentially historic blizzard to impact the area from late Monday into Tuesday.”

De Blasio even held up a chart during a Monday briefing showing the city's top 10 snowstorms, saying the forecasted storm could be the worst on a list that goes back to 1872.

On Tuesday morning, however, some in the weather service apologized for their errant predictions.

"My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public," said Gary Szatkowski, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in New Jersey in a series of tweets early Tuesday morning. “You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn't. Once again, I'm sorry.”

And as the National Weather Service in New York updated its forecasts, it tried to explain the vicissitudes of nature and the limitations of their science in statements early Tuesday:

“Rapidly deepening winter storms are very challenging to predict, specifically their track and how far west the heaviest bands will move. These bands are nearly impossible to predict until they develop,” the federal agency said.

“The science of forecasting storms, while continually improving, still can be subject to error, especially if we're on the edge of the heavy precipitation shield,” the agency continued. “Efforts, including research, are already underway to more easily communicate that forecast uncertainty.”

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