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msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/30/2010 3:31:52 PM ET 2010-12-30T20:31:52

Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday promised to investigate claims that some plow supervisors had sabotaged the city's snow removal effort in an act of revenge.

The blizzard struck days before 100 Sanitation Department supervisors in charge of coordinating the plowing fleet were scheduled to be demoted in a budget-cutting move.

The timing of the demotions, scheduled for Jan. 1, ignited speculation about sabotage.

"I don't think it took place, but we are going to do an investigation to make sure that it didn't," Bloomberg said.

Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty said he was also concerned but had seen no sign of a such a move. The heads of the two unions that represent sanitation department supervisors and rank-and-file workers said the rumors were false and insulting.

The stories of a slowdown, though, gained traction after a Republican city council member from Queens, Dan Halloran, said he met with three sanitation workers who had complained that supervisors upset about the pending demotions had "basically been giving them a green light not to do their job."

While no one was explicitly ordered to leave streets unplowed, Halloran said, certain supervisors had made it clear that workers who shirked their duties wouldn't be punished.

"If you miss streets, you're not going to be written up," he said. "You're not going to get checked up on. Take your time. This administration doesn't care. ... The supervisors aren't going to be there. So don't worry about it when you're making the rounds."

Video: Family takes $900 cab ride in blizzard (on this page)


Asked whether he thought those supervisors might simply have been demoralized and complaining out loud, rather than ordering a work slowdown, Halloran pointed to the sorry state of the streets for days after the storm.

Joseph Mannion, president of the Sanitation Officers Association, which represents about 1,000 supervisors and has been fighting the pending demotions, called that claim "ludicrous."

"There would never be a coordination to do anything in the snow. It's absolutely a taboo issue," he said. "You never, ever play with people's lives. And that's what they are saying we did."

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Bloomberg also acknowledged Thursday that the city's response to the blizzard that dropped 20 inches of snow was "inadequate and unacceptable" and said it would be reviewed.

But he continued to be criticized, including by one politician sharing the spotlight with him.

At an event in Queens where Bloomberg gave an update on the cleanup to reporters, Queens borough President Helen Marshall took the microphone to say her residents need more help. "Where is the plow?" she said.

The city's cleanup efforts, which left streets covered in snow days after the storm had finished, "was slower than anyone would have liked," Bloomberg said.

He added, "Clearly the response to this storm has not met our standard or the standard that New Yorkers have come to expect from us."

The Sanitation Department has plowed every city street at least once, except for those blocks where abandoned cars blocked the way, and 1,600 plows were on the roads, he said. The last of the 600 stuck buses had been cleared, as had most of the abandoned cars, he said.

Asked what was different about the response to this storm as opposed to previous ones, Bloomberg said the approach had been the same.

"We went into this with the same plan, the same training if not better, the same resources if not more. The results were very different," he said. "That's what we're going to take a look at."
He said the city decided on Christmas to have workers come in the next day, when the blizzard hit, and that they had the staffing they needed. He denied that budget concerns kept the city from bringing in more resources.

"The budget had nothing to do with this. We thought we had an adequate number of people, an adequate number amount of equipment, and the right training."

Every street not plowed
Doherty had promised that every street would be plowed by Thursday morning. And, in a statement, the Sanitation Department said it had met its goal of plowing every street at least once.

But NBC's Jeff Rossen found out otherwise when he reported live for TODAY at 10 a.m. ET from the unplowed intersection of Avenue I and New York Avenue in Brooklyn. During his time at the corner he witnessed several vehicles getting stuck.

Other missed streets included some in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights neighborhood.

Angelo Annunziata stood on his Brooklyn block on a snowpacked street, drifts still covering half the cars. A snowplow came through for the first time on Thursday afternoon.

"I work in Manhattan, and there they're running plows on clear pavement. All Bloomberg cares about are all the people coming in to Manhattan for New Year's," he said. "Well, we pay taxes like everybody else. This is ridiculous."

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Bloomberg on Wednesday deflected some of the criticism.

"We asked the public to do two things," Bloomberg said. "Don't call 911 unless it was a serious emergency ... And don't drive.

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"Unfortunately, too many people didn't listen."

New York City operators fielded 49,478 calls to 911 on Monday, the day after the storm. That total was the sixth highest in any day since the city began keeping statistics. There were 38,000 calls on Tuesday. Some of the calls came from the same location, but it's not clear how many.

Many of the calls were not for emergencies, and plows couldn't clear the way for ambulances because streets were clogged with abandoned vehicles.

"Your car stuck in the middle of the road made things worse," Bloomberg said.

In some instances, it took hours to respond to requests for help.

Slideshow: The East Coast digs out

The N.Y. Fire Department said additional ambulances were on the road and extra firefighters were working, but it wasn't enough to handle the call load, which was backlogged by 1,300 at one point.

Among the calls was a Brooklyn woman who called 911 several times on Monday to report she was in labor. She delivered a baby that was unconscious and later pronounced dead.

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Initially, dispatchers assigned the call a low priority because the expectant mother hadn't reported that either she or the baby were in distress, and her delivery was not believed to be imminent. Dispatchers called back several times to check in on the woman, and when a call came in that the newborn was unconscious, the priority was upgraded and EMS workers responded 12 minutes later.

The infant was pronounced dead at a hospital. The medical examiner will determine a cause of death.

Mayor 'dissatisfied'
On Wednesday, as stories began to surface about people who may have suffered serious medical problems while waiting for ambulances, the mayor was his most apologetic, without actually apologizing.

"We did not do as good a job as we wanted to do or as the city has a right to expect, and there's no question — we are an administration that has been built on accountability," Bloomberg said. "When it works, it works and we take credit, and when it doesn't work, we stand up there and say, 'OK, we did it. We'll try to find out what went wrong.'"

The fire department trains firefighters and emergency medical services workers on driving in all types of weather. Firefighters put shovels and salt aboard engines to help clear roads and snow chains to plow through snowy streets.

But ambulances can't be outfitted with snow chains because it would damage the vehicles. Plus, ambulance drivers are trained to try to get as close to the emergency as possible, because they carry heavy gear — and sometimes heavy patients.

Most of the calls with long wait times were not emergencies. The FDNY ranks emergencies and responds based on need, so a lesser emergency would be shelved until there was time to respond.

Bloomberg already has directed Skip Funk, the new citywide director of emergency communications, to look at why the communications and dispatching system failed.

"I'm extremely dissatisfied with the way our emergency response systems performed," he said Wednesday during a news conference in the Bronx.

He said he was especially disturbed by reports that ambulances had gotten stuck trying to drive through deep snow.

"Could we do a better job? We're going to try and find out. Could our ambulances have taken different routes? We're looking at that. Perhaps they could have stayed further away and walked to the places rather than try and get down the secondary roads."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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