Politicians Can Never Win With Weather

Did New York officials overreact to the snow predictions? Or is it always better to play it safe?

Seth Wenig/AP

After being a promised a blizzard of historic and catastrophic proportions on Monday, New York City residents woke up today to rather meager snow totals and a lot of questions for their public officials.


New Yorkers, of course, are not everyone. It should be said that areas outside of the metropolitan region were hit pretty hard. Eastern Long Island got over a foot of snow. The Hudson Valley and Connecticut got between 7 and 12 inches. Rhode Island was pummeled by more than 16 inches. And in Massachusetts, there are some totals over to two feet. And it's not done, as the snow continued to fall on Tuesday morning. Not "crippling," but certainly not fun in the sun.

In the media capital of the world, however, the howls are loud after predictions of 30 inches or more fizzled into somewhere closer to five or six. Meteorologists are even apologizing for their somewhat overblown predictions.

The focus, in particular, seems to be about the decision to shut down New York City at 11:00 p.m. Tuesday night. All roads in the region (not just in the city, but in Connecticut and New Jersey, as well) were closed to non-emergency traffic, but Governor Andrew Cuomo also made the unprecedented decision to preemptively shut down the entire NYC subway system. That's never happened in the 100-plus years of the subways due to snow.

Yet, by 11:00 p.m., it was already becoming clear that such a move was likely going to be unnecessary. That confusion quickly turned to outrage after a report by The Brooklyn Paper that the subway was actually still running. In order to keep the power on and the tracks clear, the MTA continued to shuttle empty trains all throughout the system and was planning to all along. It was apparently Cuomo's decision to shut the system to passengers, a move that caught MTA off guard and appeared to be unnecessary.

Naturally, some people are upset about the overreaction. It's one thing to clear the streets of cars, but the subway is the lifeline of the city, particularly for those people who work third-shift jobs or have family and friends in other boroughs. Cries of "nanny state"-ism, political posturing, or just plain cowardice are ringing out today.

On Tuesday morning, Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and other officials defended their decision. The main reason, of course, being that they remember the Christmas blizzard of 2010, which was a disaster for the city. Plows were no-shows, the streets were clogged with snowed in cars, and dozens of riders were stranded for hours on abandoned subway cars. Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg took a beating for the city's bungled response (Cuomo was governor-elect at the time) and the city and state took a bath on lawsuits.

Cuomo is also in charge of a whole state, and it wasn't that long ago that Buffalo got crushed under seven feet of lake effect snow in a storm surge that was not predicted by meteorologists. As he tries to shuttle snow removal equipment between his two far-flung cities, Cuomo is getting another lesson in the politics of weather.

When dealing with Mother Nature, you win some and you lose some, but politicians almost always lose. Underestimate, and you weren't prepared enough. Overestimate, and you look hysterical. As those meteorologists could tell you, when dealing with public opinion, you're pretty much always going to lose.

In the end, Cuomo would rather take the risk of embarrassment over the risk of real tragedy. Yes, no one was able to travel anywhere for about nine hours last night. But that also meant zero reports of travel-related injuries or deaths. So try to enjoy the snow day.