Ever wonder why New York’s politicians freak out over snowstorms? The blizzard of 1969 not only paralyzed New York City for three days, but it nearly ended Mayor John Lindsay’s political career.
February 9, 1969 was supposed to be a gloomy but quiet Sunday, with a forecast for slushy rain. Instead, an unprepared and disorganized mayoral administration grappled with 15 inches of snowfall. Many workers had Sunday off, and mobilization was slow. It took the City until Wednesday to clear major highways, open schools, and get commuter rails and full subway service up and running. The consequences were disastrous. Forty-two New Yorkers died during the storm and 288 people were injured. Thousands of passengers were stranded at airports and train stations.
Things were worst in Queens, where 21 people died and many roads remained unplowed a full week after the storm. New Yorkers couldn’t believe the administration’s incompetence. There were a few reasons that 1969 went down as the worst snow storm response in modern City history. First, the Lindsay administration was just coming off a major feud with the sanitation workers’ union, who had engaged in a bitter strike the previous year. (More on that strike this Thursday in Today in NYC History.) Lindsay administration officials complained afterwards that the Dept. of Sanitation had sandbagged the clean-up. Second, years of disrepair had resulted in as many as 40% of snowplows not working properly. Finally, Lindsay’s budget concerns prevented him from overspending projects on snow removal, as his predecessor, Robert Wagner, had done. In retrospect, this was not a good area to skimp on.
That Queens suffered the brunt of the clean-up failure was not lost on its residents, who already felt that Lindsay had little regard for the outer boroughs. In response, Lindsay went to his go-to crisis move, the neighborhood walk, but Queens residents were having none of it, heckling him wherever he went. Middle-class, outer-borough whites made up the core of the New York City Republican Party, and they got their revenge that June, delivering State Senator John Marchi a win over Lindsay in the Republican mayoral primary. Lindsay scrambled to eke out a victory in the three-way general election on the “Liberal” line, but his political support never fully recovered from the Blizzard of ’69.
Lindsay’s failure has become a national lesson to all northern mayors. Mayor Bloomberg was similarly knocked for a lackluster snowstorm response in 2010. During that storm, plows were slow to get to the outer boroughs, and New Yorkers’ frustrations were compounded by Bloomberg’s snarky comments about Broadway theaters still being open and the fact that he’d been in Bermuda when the storm happened. (Bloomberg’s performance during other snow storms was pretty good.)
Big Weather might be in the business of exaggerating storms, and snowpocalypses often end anti-climactically, but if you are a politician, you would rather be safe than end up like John Lindsay.
For more about the Lindsay administration, check out The Ungovernable City by Vincent Cannato.
…………… P.S.: I scoured the comment section of a 2009 New York Times retrospective, and found this delightful account of how “Gloria” spent the blizzard.
How can I forget February 9, 1969? In the midst of that blizzard, I attempted to get married. Several hours after the appointed time, my husband and I finally tied the knot. I had called the police for help. After they told me there were babies being born and people having heart attacks and I could get married any other day, they hung up. So did I, but as I was standing dumfounded next to the phone in my gown and veil and contemplating a call to the department of sanitation in the hopes that a snow or garbage truck could deliver me to my groom to be, the phone rang. the angel on the other end was a telephone operator who had listened in my call to the police and radioed the car that got the operators to work in emergencies. As I remember it, it was tiny and we spun out of control many times on our way to the church. My veil was in a plastic bag, my gown tied up with pins and my satin shoes replaced by black snow boots. Neighbors were standing in their windows waving as my photographer,mom, dad, maid of honor and I squeezed into the car…for me it was a chariot! Our reception was attended by 40 people who were served whatever the catering hall could come up with given no cooks showed up. We finally had a reception a week later due to some one elses canceled wedding plans. I wore my gown twice and everyone who had not been able to attend the week before had a great time. I must say, we have had just as exciting 41 years since that exciting beginning.