As I write this, New York is still struggling to deal with massive storm surges, flooding, and power outages that have now forced the evacuation of two hundred patients from the New York University Langone Medical Center-Tisch Hospital, including 20 babies from the neonatal unit. Elevators are not working, since the hospital's backup generators cut out, and so patients have had to be taken down the stairs in what must be low light conditions.
Numerous commentators are beginning to point a finger of blame at Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who unwisely offered a wildly inaccurate weather prediction on Saturday. Brendan Loy of Pajamas Media quotes the relevant bit:
Although we’re expecting a large surge of water, it is not expected to be a tropical storm or hurricane-type surge. With this storm, we’ll likely see a slow pileup of water rather than a sudden surge, which is what you would expect from a hurricane, and which we saw with Irene 14 months ago.
The blame game is really quite premature--especially with first responders in the midst of the fight, doing all they can to save lives in extraordinary circumstances. In fact, when the dust settles and the water resides, we will likely be amazed by how much worse things could have been, but for the work and self-sacrifice of the NYPD, the FDNY, and other agencies. And it's not clear to me that Bloomberg's statement has anything to do with the terrible circumstances at the NYU Hospital.
However, I agree with Loy that the statement itself was condemnable on its own. A mayor should not, of course, tell the citizens of a major city to panic--yet nor should he lull them into a false sense of security. Better the straight, gruff talk of former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, who constantly reminded residents of the dangers of extreme weather after a deadly 1995 heat wave, than the omniscient pretensions of a mayor who presumes to tell you that you must breastfeed your baby or that your drink's too big, but appears to downplay the dangers of a once-in-a-century flood.
Bloomberg has a poor track record with disasters. I happened to be in New York during the "Snowmageddon" of December 2010, when the city was paralyzed by a very large snowfall. Obviously, the mayor does not control the weather, and the blizzard began on the Christmas holiday weekend, making it harder to staff snowplow crews. (And it was fun while it lasted; we built an enormous igloo on my friend's balcony, which seated six adults comfortably and featured a window overlooking 3rd Avenue.) But Bloomberg botched it, with many streets blocked for several days.
What we are witnessing is a classic example of the folly of central planning--F.A. Hayek's great and enduring insight, which somehow we as a society are doomed to forget and then learn again, painfully. The greater power a government has, the less competent it becomes at exerting it. That is partly because of the inertia of bureaucracy, but also because human society and the world it inhabits are too complex for individuals to comprehend, comprehensively.
Mayor Bloomberg does not know how high the seas are going to rise any more than he knows whether I can stomach a Big Gulp from 7-Eleven. Individuals vary, and weather is chaotic.
Again--it is too early to point fingers, but for a mayor to advise people to be less prepared than they might otherwise have been because he presumes to predict the strength of a storm and the tides is inexcusable.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's own statement on Saturday, when he had the same information that Bloomberg did, is a model:
Let me just be real clear on this at the end. We should not underestimate the impact of this storm, and we should not assume the predictions will be wrong. I know, I've lived here all my life, too. And everyone's saying, "Crap, this isn't going to happen, you know, the weathermen always get it wrong, and we're just going to hang out and not really pay attention to this." Please don't. Okay? We have to be prepared for the worst here.