Felicia Muftic: Snowstorms have buried more than a few political careers
Grand County, CO Colorado
A word of wisdom to mayors of major urban cities: Public works will bite politicians in the behind if they do not plan for infrequent worst-case scenarios. Denver and Chicago are famous for unhorsing officials who did not plan adequately for blizzards of epic proportions and failed to clear their streets in a reasonable time.
Mike Bilandic, mayor of Chicago, lost his seat after his failure to clear streets after the Chicago blizzard of 1979.
In Denver, long term mayor Bill McNichols did not get votes to make the next runoff when he failed to clean even the main thoroughfares after the Christmas eve blizzard of 1982. He refused to call out city workers, a base of his support, to remove snow. It was more important to him they were with families on Christmas Eve.
Temperatures plunged the following week and by the time he tried to remove snow, arterial streets were impassable frozen ruts that were the rule weeks after the event. McNichols had always received voter support because “the city worked”; he demonstrated he had lost his touch.
Now, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is under fire for failing to clear outer borough streets, resulting in some citizens’ deaths because the snowplows took nearly a week to make streets passable for emergency vehicles.
Public works, roads and bridges, have the glitz of an old coat, but they are the fundamental service we expect from local and state governments. Day-to-day operations are usually funded and we take them for granted until the big one hits. Cities are reluctant to buy specialized snow removal equipment warehoused for occasional use.
Those of us who live in the mountains treasure frequent epic dumps and the national publicity it brings. It is the stuff our ski industry loves. We expect highways and passes to be closed short-term and we fund county road maintenance as a priority.
When we retired to our Winter Park home at nearly 9,000 feet, friends in Denver wondered if we had lost our minds, but our roads are better maintained in the mountains than large cities when it comes to snow removal. Our mammoth road graders and front-end loaders are worth every penny of taxpayer dollars and do double duty, maintenance and snow plowing. Berthoud Pass is often in better shape than the streets of Denver.
Mountains are special cases, but it takes some imagination for cities to deal with the problems of once-in-a-decade blizzards. After the defeat of Mayor McNichols, subsequent mayors Federico Pena, Wellington Webb, and John Hickenlooper put innovation to work. Citizens were warned to expect that side streets would be the last to be plowed, but snow emergency streets and highways got treatment from the fall of the first snowflake.
Mayors after McNichols fitted dump trucks and other public works equipment with plows and sanders and bought equipment that had multiple purposes of snow removal and street repair. Emergency preparedness centers opened and were staffed. The National Guard was mobilized to serve those needing medical attention and to bring essential public staff to their posts.
Even then, storms can intensify overhead unexpectedly. It happened in the Webb administration. Stephanie Foote, manager of public works, trapped at home, strapped on cross country skis, made it to a main thoroughfare and was transported to her post in city hall by a National Guard Humvee.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey deserves criticism for remaining in Disney World and permitting the lieutenant governor to be in Mexico during this December’s historic blizzard. It may prove to be his Katrina moment. The moment was saved when the democratic president of the state Senate called an emergency the night before to get traffic off the streets.
Take note, Mayor Bloomberg. There are some good lessons to be learned from Colorado.
– Felicia Muftic has lived in Chicago, New York, and Denver and served in the administration of Denver Mayor Federico Pena in the 1980s. Visit http://www.mufticforum.com
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