Snowperbole: New Yorkers ask 'Is that it?'

Commuters make their way across the Brooklyn Bridge after a snow storm in New York January 27, 2015. Image copyright Reuters

In the end it was the threat of a monster storm that paralysed New York City, rather than the snowfall itself.

Just five inches were recorded in Central Park, nowhere near the forecast of up to three feet. Warnings, near apocalyptic, that the city faced an extreme weather event of epic and historic proportions, which started with a press conference on Sunday conducted by New York Mayor's Bill de Blasio, now sound alarmist.

Shutting down the subway system, for the first time in its history because of snow, can easily be viewed in retrospect like overkill. So does bringing in a car curfew, which banned non-emergency vehicles from the streets from 23:00 last night.

Walking the empty streets of Manhattan pre-dawn, and seeing the snow, we all found ourselves asking the same question: "Is that it?"

It reminded me of that scene from Crocodile Dundee, when Mick Dundee is confronted by muggers wielding a switchblade. "That's not a knife," he says, pulling out a much scarier weapon. "This is a knife."

That's not a storm, some New Yorkers told us, as they made their way to work muttering that Bill de Blasio had got it badly wrong.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Bill de Blasio (centre) had warned of a potentially historic snow storm

Canadians living in New York must be thinking that the Big Apple has gone soft. "YUP, IT SNOWED," was the headline in New York's Daily News, a tabloid that prides itself on taking the pulse of the city.

Clearly, New York's mayor, who has just started his second year in office, was enforcing the better-safe-than-sorry doctrine.

"Would you rather be ahead of the action or behind?" he asked at a news conference. "Would you rather be prepared or unprepared? Would you rather be safe or unsafe? My job as leader is to make decisions and I will always err on the side of safety and caution."

New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo also defended this "playing it safe" approach.

"I would rather, if there is a lean one way or the other, lean towards safety because I have seen the consequences the other way and its gets very frightening very quickly," he told reporters.

"I would rather be in a situation where we say 'We got lucky.'"

Image copyright Getty Images

Arguably that's a sensible municipal mantra in a city that underestimated the effects of the 2010 blizzard that dumped 20 inches of snow on Central Park and which caught the city, and its then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, off-guard.

New York was also underprepared when Superstorm Sandy caused such mayhem in 2012. The city's losses were estimated at $19bn (£12bn).

Besides, the spectre of "Hurricane Katrina" looms over every American political leader.

The Bush administration's botched response to the costliest natural disaster in American history blew the president's second term off course. He never recovered. Better to be remembered as the leader who occasionally cried wolf than pilloried for getting it hopelessly wrong.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption With no school and no heavy snow falling during the day - New York's children went tobagganing

This storm wasn't even Katrina's second cousin, and weathermen like Gary Szatkowski of the National Weather Service, have admitted on Twitter that their forecasts were awry.

"My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public," wrote Szatkowski.

"You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn't. Once again, I'm sorry." That's given city and state leaders some much-needed scientific and political cover.

With this winter storm, the multiplier effect of the modern-day media played a part. Social media has a tendency to heighten any event or occasion.

So do continuous news channels. Hype is the order of the day. We love tossing around phrases like "Snowmaggedon," and hanker after new ones. One has emerged today: "Snowperbole."

But it also worth remembering the raw material we were working with - the jolting words of Mayor de Blasio on Sunday:

"This could be the biggest snowstorm in the history of this city. My message for New Yorkers is prepare for something worse than we have ever seen before."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption More than 1,800 snowploughs were dispatched in New York City

No city in the world has quite the same convenience culture as New York, whether its stores that are open all night or restaurants that will deliver at any hours.

New Yorkers, a famously impatient and outspoken demographic, do not like to be inconvenienced. A city of such hurtling pace resents being brought to a standstill.

Yet mayors and governors have little choice but to deliver inconvenient truths, even if afterwards they sound like inflated warnings.

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