NEW YORK — When nearly 2 feet of thick snow fell across the city the day after Christmas, New Yorkers did what they usually do: move forward, confident that they could.
"I'm a New Yorker. I'm used to this," Christine Mendez said, digging her boyfriend's car out of a snow drift on Central Park West on Monday.
The city had cleaned up big storms like this – its sixth-worst on record – with ease before. But this aftermath was unlike anything New Yorkers had seen in decades. Planes, trains, hundreds and hundreds of buses and ambulances were stuck in the snow for long hours, often with shivering passengers aboard. Snow plows got stuck, along with the tow trucks sent to dig them out. After the last snowflake fell Monday morning, it took another three days before some people saw their mail.
City leaders and millions of unraveled residents were left wondering what conflation of events had conspired to produce such an imperfect storm.
Was it the fault of stubborn travelers too determined to get home on time after Christmas, some of whom later abandoned cars in the middle of snow-covered streets? Was it unprepared, unaware city leaders who didn't shut down the transit system or send plows into streets on time? A staged slowdown by disgruntled sanitation supervisors? Or, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others said again and again, did the snow just fall too fast?
Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association union, simply said: "We lost this blizzard."
The lead-up to the storm began with low expectations. It wasn't until Saturday morning, Christmas Day, that the National Weather Service's prediction of 3 to 5 inches of snow blossomed into a forecast of as much as a foot. By late that night, the forecast had gone up to 11 to 16 inches – and then up to 20 inches by the time snow started falling Sunday.
On Saturday afternoon, city agency liaisons for transportation, police, sanitation and other agencies were told to report to the city emergency operations center the next day at 4 p.m. The city didn't declare a snow emergency, which would have removed cars from the city's busiest, highest-priority roads. The city has cleaned up after several storms successfully without declaring a snow emergency, a step it last took in 2003; Bloomberg said later that finding places to park snowbound cars would have made the situation worse.
The mayor, beset by a nasty winter cold, appeared at a press conference early Sunday evening to ask motorists to please stay off the roads. But it seemed few people were listening.
Shafquat Hayatin drove his cab into midtown Manhattan, hoping to cash in on the bad weather by ferrying stranded New Yorkers. He ended up sleeping in his taxi Sunday, the gas running to keep the heat on. "I've never seen so many cars stuck in 22 years," Hayatin said Monday.
Travel writer Jason Cochran got on the road to Kennedy Airport, and boarded a flight to London. For a moment, it seemed he would fly. "We thought we were the luckiest people in New York City," he said. By Monday morning, he was still at the terminal. The region's three major airports closed for more than a day, turning terminals into makeshift cot encampments.
On Sunday evening, Annie O'Daly slipped at the entrance to her Brooklyn house, breaking her ankle. When her family called 911, they were warned there might be a delay getting help. City officials had asked the public to call emergency lines only in life-threatening situations, but O'Daly's family, worried they could worsen the damage by moving her, saw no other option than to wait for an ambulance.
Christopher Mullen was among countless stranded travelers trying to find a way out of Kennedy Airport. Soaking wet, he boarded a chilly city subway, only to get stuck onboard for eight hours, with gusts of wind shaking the train car.
At least 100 plows around the city got stuck, and many were slipping despite the snow chains covering the tires, Nespoli said.
By 11 a.m. Monday, snow had stopped falling, and 911 was flooded with calls. At one point, the system was 1,300 calls behind. Nearly 50,000 people called in a day – one of the busiest days in memory, apart from Sept. 11, 2001. City officials said many were repeat calls and many weren't true emergencies.
Bloomberg said Monday afternoon the snow had fallen at 2 to 3 inches an hour and too many cars were stuck in the streets, slowing the response. He said the city was doing its job to clear streets as quickly as possible. "There's no reason for everybody to panic," he said.
In Brooklyn, a woman who was in labor called for an ambulance but was told none were available. Hours later, the baby came. EMS workers responded 12 minutes later, but the child was delivered unconscious in a building vestibule, then declared dead at a hospital.
And at 2:30 a.m., after 30 hours of agonized waiting with a broken ankle, medical technicians arrived at Annie O'Daly's home and brought her to the hospital.
On Tuesday, the emergency calls kept coming. And around the city, especially outside of Manhattan, residents felt stranded and ignored.
In the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, residents living on unplowed streets faced a three- to four-mile walk through the snow to get to a working subway line. Car services were turning away customers.
Hayden Hunt, in Brooklyn's Flatlands neighborhood, was scrambling to find a way around without buses running, and was upset to see ambulances still stranded in the snow. "It's foolishness, come on," he said.
The mayor spent the next several days visiting far-flung neighborhoods, with a conciliatory tone and a pledge to investigate everything that had gone wrong. The city's response to the storm was "inadequate and unacceptable," he said.
On Friday, he talked of a phone glitch that could have taken down the city's information hotline and pledged a criminal investigation of the rumored sanitation slowdown. He said his administration would be accountable. But "it's second-guessing, Monday morning quarterbacking, should have, would have, could have," he said. "Nobody's perfect."
By Thursday, officials announced, snowplows had been down practically every street, at least once. Angelo Annunziata pointed to the knee-high snow that had been in front of his south Brooklyn home since Sunday. He said he and his neighbors had been forgotten. "We pay taxes like everybody else," he said. "This is ridiculous."
A plow drove through later that afternoon. Said Annunziata: "Finally!"
The next day the sun came out to take care of what the city couldn't. Underneath the snow were piles of untouched garbage.
Contributing to this report were Meghan Barr, Sara Kugler Frazier, Deepti Hajela, Chris Hawley, Ula Ilnytzky, Karen Matthews, Marco Mulcahy and Adam Pemble.