Are NY Leaders Leaving Citizens Unprepared For An Air Quality Crisis?

New Yorkers have become accustomed to being inundated with well-meaning warnings from city and state leaders for everything from incoming snowstorms to viral outbreaks.

But as the sky darkened dramatically over New York City Tuesday night, the air suddenly filling with acrid smoke, Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul kept silent about deteriorating conditions, limiting their communications to news releases and postings on Twitter.

It wasn't until Wednesday morning, roughly 12 hours after air quality reached historically unhealthy levels, that Mr Adams and Mrs Hochul spoke to reporters to discuss the health crisis.

Mr Adams immediately drew criticism for his response; Ms Hochul was largely spared. They are among city leaders on the East Coast suddenly left to grapple with a situation they have never dealt with before, as air quality deteriorates to levels not seen since the worst effects of the wildfires in California and Oregon.

In New York City, the air quality index hit 413 on Wednesday, the highest level ever recorded, sending more patients than usual to city hospitals with respiratory problems and prompting Broadway shows and Yankees games to be cancelled.

Mr Adams and Mrs Hochul, Democrats in a state with an outspoken party left, are no strangers to crises, from pandemics to rising crime and an influx of tens of thousands of migrants from the southern border.

But several health experts and elected officials in New York City are suggesting that Adams and Ms. Hochul must move faster to alert residents to the dangers posed by the smoke, distribute high-quality masks and urge more people to work from home. .

High levels of fire smoke can cause symptoms such as sore eyes or coughing in people without underlying conditions.

But for the most vulnerable, especially those with respiratory problems like asthma, even brief exposure can have more serious and immediate consequences, because the toxins in the smoke can trigger inflammation and exacerbate existing health problems.

Rebecca Bratspies, director of the Center for Urban Environmental Reform at the City University of New York Law School, said the masks were distributed late, after the worst air quality conditions had passed.

He said he had been watching reports of wildfires in Canada since last weekend and the city should have been better prepared.

“When the mayor said there was no game plan for this – of course there was,” said Ms. Bratspies, who serves on the city's Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Mr Adams staunchly defended the city's response and said officials were doing their best to respond to new and unexpected threats.

“What we really need to try to prevent is giving any indication that this administration is not responding proactively and not moving in the right direction to inform New Yorkers,” Adams told reporters Wednesday morning.

On Thursday, the mayor's tone got tougher. He asked reporters if he too should be prepared for a “meteor to fall on planet Earth”. (The White House did have a plan for the meteor strike.)

“So if you want to play — ‘Why don't you know every problem that's going to happen?' – it's up to you, ”said the mayor. “I know how well this team responds.”

Mr Adams, known for keeping a relentless schedule of public appearances, sought to demonstrate his direct approach by visiting a public housing building on Wednesday evening to distribute masks.

But the city's commissioner for emergency management, Zach Iscol, acknowledged on Wednesday that the city did not have a “ready-made plan” for a smoke emergency, although it did have other plans for unforeseen events such as a nuclear attack.

“That's something we're working on,” he told reporters.

Jay Varma, director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response and advisor to health under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the health crisis demonstrated the need for states and cities to create early warning systems to warn residents of the risk. smoke wildfires first, as they did with coastal storms, and consider solutions to improve air quality when bad, such as limiting car traffic as other cities have done, including Beijing and Mexico City.

The state's Department of Environmental Conservation first posted advisory warning regarding increased levels of fine particulate matter in parts of the state on June 1.

On Tuesday afternoon, the governor's office issued news release announced that wildfires were creating hazy conditions in New York City and elsewhere, urged residents to limit exposure and said state experts were monitoring the situation.

On Wednesday morning, as many New Yorkers awoke to heavy fog, the governor spoke to reporters in Albany about the situation, saying it was a “crisis emergency” and warning it could last several days.

Asked about the wisdom of declaring a state of emergency, Ms. Hochul said that it was not necessary.

“Emergencies are mechanisms you use when there's something you can do,” he said. “We don't have much we can do about the state of toxic contaminated air coming into our airspace, so there's no need to deploy resources or bring money to the table.”

On Wednesday night, Ms. Hochul held an impromptu briefing in Albany to provide further updates and announce that the state will stock one million Covid masks from its stockpile. The masks, he said, would be distributed at subway stations, state parks, at state facilities and directly to local governments.

Dr. Varma said he was happy that Ms Hochul was distributing masks, but that some New Yorkers needed them more urgently than others.

“I would like to see that the priority is going to areas with higher rates of asthma, which basically overlaps with racial and economic differences,” he said.

On Thursday, as scrutiny over Mr Adams' response increased, Ms Hochul sought to fend off any criticism of the state's actions by noting state officials began sending advice as early as last week.

He said there was no way of knowing that the air quality would drastically deteriorate.

“Six days ago, we started making announcements for preparations,” the governor said during another briefing in Albany. “We're monitoring.”

Explanations from the Governor and Mr. Adams did little to dampen criticism, especially from the mayor. Lincoln Restler, a City Councilman from Brooklyn, complained Wednesday afternoon that the city was “not taking proactive steps to protect New Yorkers,” other than suspending outdoor activities at schools.

Brad Lander, the city's comptroller and frequent critic of the mayor, said in an interview that the city should have been prepared with a plan to respond because California has experienced similar events for years.

“We just went through a crisis that was all about masks, ventilation and air quality,” he said referring to the pandemic. “We were too slow to deploy them at a time when they were most needed.”

And Melissa DeRosa, who was a top aide to former Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, blamed federal and state leaders for not communicating quickly enough with New Yorkers.

“It would be nice if there was a steady stream of information from the federal and state governments letting people know what was going on,” he wrote in twitter.

Dan Rubinstein reporting contribution.