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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Holds Media Availability to Provide Update on City's Snow Preparedness

December 2, 2019

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Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good morning, everybody. Welcome back from the holiday. I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Unfortunately we’re coming back to a situation here where we all have to get ready for some challenging weather, and as we have certainly learned over the years what I’ll be preaching today is better safe than sorry and everyone get ready for this weather, take it seriously, do not assume it will be less. We always want to assume it might be more and be prepared. And we’ll go over the preparations that the city and all of our agencies have undertaken to get ready for this weather situation. Before I do that, just to say after the presentation on the storm and we take your questions on that, we’ll have a quick presentation from DEP Commissioner Vinny Sapienza on the situation in Queens with the sewage backup. We’ll take some quick questions on that as well. I’ll be going out to Queens later on in the afternoon. We’ll be taking questions out there as well.

But first to the storm – well, winters here. Everyone get ready now, it’s going to be obviously months ahead, but for now what we have is a lot of rain that later on in the afternoon will turn into snow. And unfortunately that will probably correlate to the rush hour. So the first thing I want to say to focus is if you don’t need to be in your car later on, if you can avoid driving or if you can take mass transit, please do, because it’s going to be really sloppy rush hour this evening. I want to make sure that everyone knows that for today alternate side parking is canceled. So hopefully that will make it a little bit easier for drivers in terms of where they keep their cars. Now what we have heard from the National Weather Service so far we expect another update shortly, but right now the snow will start later this afternoon. The initial expectation is two to four inches if you’re talking about the city as a whole. But I do want to note there is projection now for certain parts of the city, particularly the more northern parts of the city of up to five to eight inches. And again, as we have learned with previous storms they can come faster and they can be larger than originally projected. So, the fact that we’ve got five to eight inches projected for some parts of the city should make everyone quite aware that number could go up and could go up quickly. Of course we are prepared and the Sanitation Department always leads the way. They have 705 salt spreaders deployed and 1,500 plows ready to start their work once there is enough snow accumulation.

Now, we again anticipate that anything can happen with the storm so we’ve been doing a lot to lay a foundation to get ready. The Sanitation Department has already spread liquid brine on the highway ramps in advance. This is an area where we’ve had some problems in the past. So we’re taking additional proactive steps to make sure those highway ramps are useable. Also a number of changes have taken place since last winter as a result of things we’ve learned. For one thing Office of Emergency Management has hired a meteorologist of its own to work directly with the National Weather Service. Even small improvement in the forecasting helps us a lot. If we can hone exactly where a problem is going to be, exactly how many inches of snow or the exact time, even being able to know it’ll come an hour earlier later can change how we approach it. So having that meteorologist is going to help a lot. Agencies are also communicating a lot more. We found six years ago a lot of agencies didn’t work together. We’ve been working steadily to improve that. One of the simple things we’re doing is making sure that every agency talks together, all together every 30 minutes during a storm situation to constantly make adjustments and improvements to our plan. And we’ve tripled the number of weather monitoring devices around the city so we can have a much more accurate and immediate sense of what’s happening.

Also, one of the things we’ve learned from past storms is that our sanitation plows need of course to get where the need is greatest and sometimes they can’t do that alone. So from now on the NYPD will be escorting Sanitation plows when necessary to get them through. If there is a traffic jam up and we need the plows to get to where the problem is greatest, the NYPD is going to lead the way. Also, another thing that’s important during storms but important all the time for parents – the Department of Education has now installed GPS tracking on all of our school buses and parents can therefore always find out what’s happening with their child. I want to remind parents that the number you can call whenever you need to check in real time for the location of your child’s school bus that number is 7-1-8-3-9-2-8-8-5-5, again 7-1-8-3-9-2-8-8-5-5. So, update on schools – right now of course school is open today, everything is moving smoothly. We anticipate school being open tomorrow. We’re going to obviously watch the storm closely into the evening if anything changes we’ll certainly alert the people of this city. But right now, assume school is open tomorrow. One thing that is different will be certain afterschool programs today, a small number of them that rely on school buses, those will be closed. But normal school bus service will be running for sure. Now, we expect temperatures to get colder tonight, and therefore our code blue is in effect to help anyone vulnerable or homeless. If you see someone in need please call 3-1-1. And as always check on your neighbors, check on anybody who might need help, anyone who is disabled, help out our seniors. If they need any help with shoveling, please do what you can to help them. Look out for each other – that is the spirit of the holiday season and that’s the spirit that New Yorkers bring to every challenge. We’re going to get an update in a moment from OEM Commissioner Criswell, and Sanitation Commissioner Garcia but just first a few words in Spanish.

[Mayor de Blasio speaks in Spanish]

With that I want to turn to Commissioner Deanne Criswell who’ll give us the latest what she and her team are hearing from the National Weather Service.

Commissioner Deanne Criswell, Emergency Management: Thank you, Mayor. Good morning, everybody and as the Mayor said you are seeing rain now that is going to transition into a sleet slushy mixture later this afternoon and turning into snow during that evening commute home. Our message out to New Yorkers is that we really urge you to stay off the roads if possible, use mass transit, and we want to alleviate any of the congestion that we might see in that afternoon commute.

According to the latest National Weather Service forecast the rain again is going to continue into the afternoon and it will be taper off by daybreak on Tuesday. What we are doing here at the City to prepare for that is we have issued a travel advisory for today. Travel conditions are going to be messy and again public transportation is your best option. We are going to stay in close communication with the National Weather Service throughout the day as well as with our new meteorologist. Our next update is at 11:00 am. We have surged our staffing here in our watch command as well as we have staffed our emergency operation center so that we can rapidly coordinate any resources that are needed if conditions do worsen. We have been conducting daily weather calls and we will continue to communicate with our city agencies and partner agencies to make sure that we bringing all necessary resources to the residents of New York as needed. And I can’t say it enough, the advice for today is to stay off the roads. If you can stay off the roads and use mass transit as much as you can. And as always make sure that you’re checking in on your neighbors and your loved ones to see if there’s anything that you can do to help them out. Thank you.

Mayor: Thank you. Sanitation Commissioner, Kathryn Garcia.

Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, Department of Sanitation: Good morning everyone, and I hope everyone had a good holiday. As the Mayor mentioned we have 705 spreaders out, we have been pre-salting, so we should have a nice coating on before we begin to see the icy conditions which will then convert to snow conditions. We will then deploy the 1,500 plows. They will not start plowing until we are at two inches of snowfall but we think that we also will see suppressed accumulations with the pre-salting. We split into two shifts, so we have over 2,600 Sanitation workers on the day line on the day line. We will have another 2,300 coming in on the evening line. With that said you can expect that there will be delays in collection, we did some of it last night, but leave the material out, we will be getting to it as soon as we are through with snow operations.

As I remind everyone, as everyone else has, conditions are going to change very quickly as we move into the evening rush and we anticipate seeing both ice and slush as well as snowfall which obviously could go up or down based on what happens with the freezing line. But I want to encourage every New Yorker to please use mass transit and if they are driving to just be slow. Thank you.

Mayor: Thank you very much, Commissioner. Let’s take questions on the storm. Any questions, Dave?

Question: I sense some – maybe it’s because it’s the first storm of the year or this is a longer storm and we don’t know how much exactly we’re going to get in the city, but I sense a little bit of maybe anxiety for lack of a better word here about this storm. Maybe I’m wrong, but is there a sense of – like we just don’t know what this is going to do, this storm?

Mayor: I would say it’s hyper-focus. I think – maybe a cousin to anxiety. But the – Dave I think we have all learned to just expect the unexpected. The – you know, I keep reminding everyone that we literally all together a lot of you all here earlier on a few years ago when we had the largest blizzard in the history of New York City. I want to say, Kathryn, 28 inches – 29 inches, something like that?

Commissioner Garcia: 27.5.

Mayor: 27.5, there you go. And that was literally the biggest snowstorm in 150 years. The first National Weather Service forecast on that storm was eight inches. And that’s not to put down the Weather Service, they do fantastic work. But the point is Mother Nature makes her own decisions. So as we are ramping up for the snow season, and sort of getting the rust off and getting ready to get back into snow action, we wanted to be in a state of, you know, intense readiness. We’ve also seen very sudden shifts sometimes, where a storm arrives hours earlier than predicted. And so, I think what we’ve learned is expect the unexpected, get ready, get everything ready early, you know. If the worst problem you have is you were too ready and the snow didn’t materialize that’s probably a good problem to have.

Go ahead, Andrew.

Question: Two questions. First, on the afterschool – why would you cancel just the yellow bus afterschool programs, other afterschool programs rely on vans and other forms of transportation. Why not be consistent on the approach to afterschool?

Mayor: I think if for – the basic reason is you know you’re talking about a lot of afterschool is very local, first of all, where it’s kids obviously right in the immediate community where it’s less of a challenge. And this is different than the regular school buses that tend to you know, leave, give or take, 3:00 in the afternoon so ahead of when we expect the worst of the snow. I think we just thought that this – these are larger vehicles during the time when the snow is supposed to be active, you know, losing the afterschool for a day is obviously not that big a problem but it’s better safe than sorry.

Question: So the second question – the meteorologist that you guys hired, I did hear Commissioner Criswell talk about consulting with the National Weather Service. Are you not yet in a position where you’re consulting with your own meteorologist or how do you coordinate the official forecast with your in-house forecast, and how do you – what if they differ?

Mayor: You are asking an excellent question, many scenarios there. I’ll have Commissioner Criswell speak to it. I want to state the obvious, it’s like anything else in life – having your own expertise helps you to make better decisions. Look, I’ll use a very, very different parallel. A long time ago the NYPD made a very smart decision and decided we need our own intelligence gathering, our own counterterrorism capacity. That proved to be a very smart decision. This is a – thank God, a much milder dynamic, but having your own in-house expertise allows the ability to ask better questions, see trends, see small things that could turn into big things, especially issues like what is the exact timing of a storm? Commissioner, you want to speak to that further?

Commissioner Criswell: Yeah, it’s a great question, and the National Weather Service is a really great partner and they give us the official forecast. Our meteorologist is working directly with them and they’re really helping us operationalize the information, giving us more specifics and minute information about timing so we can make better decisions on when and how we can best deploy the resources in the city to meet those demands.

Mayor: Okay. Yes.

Question: Right now, you’re seeing between three and seven accumulation?

Mayor: I think that the central forecast for the city remains two to four, but the high end for the more Northern parts of the city is now at five to eight. Again, we’ve all been down this road before. This could fluctuate a lot. But when I start to hear five to eight I’m like, you know, buckle your seatbelts because you’re never sure what’s going to happen next.


Question: When will you think about school tomorrow?

Mayor: Well, we’ll be thinking about it from the end of the afternoon on. I mean the snow right now we’re expecting to have hit around rush hour unfortunately. But we’ve got to see how much, we’ve got to see how intense it is, how long we expect it to go. I, as you know, I was a public school parent, I know how much parents value getting the information as early as possible on the next day, so my message to parents right now is school is on tomorrow, assume it’s on. If we start to be concerned we’ll let people know that, you know, things might be changing. My goal is always to get the word out to parents during the evening hours so they can make their plans and adjustments. Sometimes we don’t know until the very last moment but we’re trying to avoid that, we’re trying to get to a firm yes or no by the end of the evening.


Question: Last November, you guys had a storm that may not have been prepared enough for and as a result the OEM Commissioner was forced out or resigned—

Mayor: Well that’s not true, so continue. The first part we had – I’m going to just – let me interrupt the question if I may. We had a storm that was an absolute freak storm. There was no correlation between what was projected and what happened. And most importantly the busiest bridge in America went out, which is not something anyone foresaw. That said, we have definitely learned a lot of lessons, we’ve definitely seen things we could have done better then, had we recognized that so, you know a one or two inch storm can suddenly turn into something much worse. We have made a lot of changes. What happened with the Commissioner was an entirely different matter. Go ahead.

Question: Okay, so I mean, you’re saying to all the commissioners standing around you today like “don’t worry, whatever happens, I’m not going to blame you—”
Mayor: That’s just not a realistic question. Go ahead.

Question: Two questions. First, what advice do you have both for drivers and for subway and Metro North and LIRR riders who are going to go home this afternoon? And second, what’s going on at Rikers Island, the other city jails? There have been some reports that it’s already cold there. Are there blankets being distributed? How’s heat, etcetera?

Mayor: The – on the first question, and I don’t know who here can give the best answer on Rikers, I don’t think we have a representative Corrections here, so if someone else has that information, Commissioner Criswell or someone else, step up in a sec or else we’ll get it to you right away.

On the commuters, look I think it’s real common sense stuff. If you can take mass transit instead of driving, please do. If you can leave early instead of late, leave early. Expect things to be slow. Expect problems out there and you know try and give yourself the time so you’re not rushing, because the last thing we want people to do is be – trying to rush through such a difficult situation. So just everyone realized this thing is unfortunately hitting right when you wouldn’t want it to, around rush hour, and again, could be much bigger than we’re hearing right now, or could be smaller as well.

Question: Does Commissioner Criswell know about the Rikers situation?

Commissioner Criswell: We’re getting more information right now.

Mayor: We’ll get that to you in a few minutes.

Question: [Inaudible] flooded homes in Queens. Is there a special approach to that considering the storm –

Mayor: We’re going to talk about that in just a moment. Let’s do that separately. Just anything else on – Dave?

Question: Are you urging companies to go ahead and tell their employees, leave early?

Mayor: Look, this one, as per usual, we’ve got an unclear situation. If I were running a company and looking at this forecast right now I wouldn’t be particularly in awe of it. But I would say to companies, certainly recognize if you can cut some slack to your employees, please do. And certainly don’t keep people late because we do expect it to get worse as the rush hour continues. So, right now, Dave, this one is a little hard to call at this moment in the morning. What I would urge everyone to do is keep a close eye on the news throughout the afternoon. And if it starts picking up earlier or more intense, then that’s a scenario for sure where I’d ask employers to be as lenient as possible. Any other questions on the weather situation? Going once, going twice – okay, let me have Commissioner Sapienza come up and talk about the situation in Queens.

Commissioner Vincent Sapienza, Department of Environmental Protection: Thank you, Mayor. Good morning, everyone. So, on Saturday DEP crews responded to complaints of sewage backing up into homes in South Ozone Park in Queens. We subsequently determined that the problem was a large sewer near Kennedy Airport at 150th Street that had a partial blockage in it which was causing the sewage to backup. About 74 homes were affected with some level of sewage. I visited many of them and the sewage in their basements range from a few inches to several feet, and we helped with the pump out. Recognizing that clearly that blockage, because that large sewer is 40 feet deep, would take some time. Yesterday DEP set up what’s called bypass system where we put a large pipe above ground on the street and we’re pumping sewage up from the lower level through that pipe and that’s now alleviating any backups into the neighborhood and we’re continuing to work with the residents to resolve their issues.

Mayor: Thank you, Commissioner. Thank you to you and all the members of your team who have been working hard the last few days to resolve it. Yes?

Question: Actually, a number of Queens residents said yesterday that the City had a pretty crappy response to the sewage problem, pardon the pun. And they would have liked to – I know you said you’re going out today but they would have liked to see you there yesterday or even Saturday.

Mayor: Again, the most important thing is to get the work done and our emergency crews were doing that and the important thing was for them to stabilize the situation which I think they have done a very good job under very adverse circumstances. There’s more to do. I’m going out there today. I want to assure all the homeowners we’re going to stand with them and we’re going to help them get back on their feet and address their issues case by case, home by home.

Question: [Inaudible] circumstances.

Mayor: It’s a very tough operation. I mean this is a very – look, I’m trying to remember in all my time in public service, I don’t remember anything like this before. This is a tough, unexpected situation. Commissioner, why don’t you – you’re a lifelong DEP-er. Why don’t you explain?

Commissioner Sapienza: So the location of this large sewer makes it difficult. The depth of the large sewer makes it difficult to clear. So, again, we did set up this pump-around system. We’re pumping around ten millions gallons a day of wastewater past the blockage to relieve this community of further backups. So, it’s just – it’s tough work and the icy rain yesterday just made it even tougher.

Question: So can you just clarify. There were earlier statements that came out of the DEP saying that it was maybe turkey grease from Thanksgiving. Lots of this has nothing to do with that, it’s actually coming from the airport that caused the blockage.

Commissioner Sapienza: The actually – just on grease. The actual statement that we made is the vast majority of backups related to – the sewage backups around the city is related to cooking grease. We did not say that the reason for this particular blockage was cooking grease and until we actually get in that sewer we won’t know for sure. So, that was the statement that was made. It has nothing to do with the airport. It’s just – that’s the location where the sewer runs through and it runs to the Jamaica Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Question: So wait, this wasn’t caused by grease?

Commissioner Sapienza: The statement we made on Saturday was that the vast majority of backups around the city are caused by residential cooking grease but that this one we wouldn’t know until we got into the sewer.

Question: To be clear, you guys don’t know what the cause is yet because you haven’t gotten in –

Commissioner Sapienza: That’s correct.

Question: Okay. How long will it take for you to get to it?

Commissioner Sapienza: So we’re doing excavation now. We actually had to – because of the depth of the excavation we had to bring in special shoring from Massachusetts. It’s on site. The repairs may take several days but again with the bypass pumping system any wastewater that’s generated from that neighborhood will bypass the blockage and it will not – there will no longer be backups.

Question: Are you still trying to get to that pipe?

Commissioner Sapienza: That’s correct.

Question: How long does that take?

Commissioner Sapienza: So, we’re working on that now. Again, there are two lanes of the South Conduit Expressway that may be closed. We’re working with DOT on that as well but it will take several days to get down there and take a look.

Question: What are the lanes closed, from where to where on the [inaudible] –

Commissioner Sapienza: Yeah, so, it’s the Rockaway Boulevard entrance ramp of the Conduit going eastbound is closed and the 150th Street overpass is closed.

Question: Commissioner, the homes needing to be pumped, is DEP handling that or are the homeowners finding their own resources?

Commissioner Sapienza: So, two things – DEP offered support. Any homeowner that needed our help, we’ve pumped them out. We worked with the Office of Emergency Management to set up pumping systems for them. Many of the homeowners already had their own pumps and those were in place very early on and they pumped themselves out.

Question: What about the cost of repairs for homes? Is there going to be any kind of way that residents can get funds for this?

Commissioner Sapienza: So, right away we told the homeowners to fill out a form to make a claim for compensation through the New York City Comptroller’s Office. DEP admitted responsibility for the problem so the Comptroller will cut checks. We’ve heard from some homeowners that they don’t have the out of pocket means to start the work and so our Office of Emergency Management is working with them.

Mayor: Any other questions on – please, yes.

Question: [Inaudible] the backup in the homes is starting with this bypass system in place?

Commissioner Sapienza: So the backups have stopped as of last night.

Question: [Inaudible] people yesterday that were pumped out but were then back upped again. That’s –

Commissioner Sapienza: Right, now with this large bypass in place as of last night – I walked the neighborhood this morning and everyone was dry.

Mayor: Let’s see if there’s any more questions on Queens. Again, we’ll be out there later on, take more questions then. On the previous question about Rikers – just an update, that there is a monitoring system in place 24/7 to watch for any situations where any of the housing units get cold. If any unit gets too cold people will be moved. Obviously the Rikers population, thank God, is down so they can move – DOC can move people around as needed and there are extra blankets available. So, so far so good with that. Okay – yes, please?

Question: We’ve had some problems with the jails here in Brooklyn as well [inaudible] last winter –

Mayor: The federal one?

Question: The federal one and now also the one right here on Atlantic Avenue [inaudible] –

Mayor: Okay, we can get you an update. The same point though that there is monitoring and we’ll make sure if there are any issues people – we can also move people either within the facility or out of the facility. But we’ll get you a further update on that.

Question: So far so good – there’s been no activation of the monitoring, as far as you know?

Mayor: I have not heard of any situation where anyone needed to be moved but let’s check that as well. We’ll get you an update on that.

Question: Do you think it’s appropriate for NYPD to fly that thin blue line flag –

Mayor: Is this about – we’re just doing this now. We’ll happily talk about other things another time. No, we’re just talking about these two situations. Go ahead.

Question: Just one other weather question on the lessons learned from the November storm last year. You did have your partners in New Jersey who had a colossal problem that day. For example, Port Authority bus terminal – thousands and thousands of people lined up on 8th Avenue. I just wonder, do you coordinate with them at all because when there are problems in New Jersey it leads to problems in the city?

Mayor: Yeah, very fair statement. And the bridge – I didn’t know at the time and I learned that next day it’s literally the busiest bridge in the United States and that bridge going out caused an immense negative problem for the city, and you’re right then all sorts of other questions. I believe that one of the byproducts of that was more communication about how to make sure that doesn’t happen again with the bridge. And there is a general increase in communication going on but commissioners, either one of you want to speak to that?

Commissioner Garcia: We certainly, actually pre-season, have been in contact with all of the people we view as partners when we are fighting snow because we know that if there are challenges in New Jersey or in Westchester they will impact the City of New York. And so we have been making those repeatedly during this season. And it will be very different. If you were watching television yesterday it stayed sort of sleety here. The Meadowlands were getting snow. So this is a storm where the gradients are very close. So, what’s happening in New Jersey or in Westchester could have impacts on the City of New York and obviously on commuters going home.

Mayor: Last call. Going once, twice – okay, see you later on everyone. Thanks.

Thank you, everybody.

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