As New York City was bombarded with dangerous air and smoke conditions that turned the skyline orange, some residents and environmental experts questioned if the city’s leader acted quickly enough to warn people about the dangers of the “smoke wave.”
The city’s Office of Emergency Management issued warnings on its social media pages and city alert system starting Tuesday afternoon and Mayor Eric Adams put out a news release about the dangerous air quality around 11:30 p.m.
Some environmentalists said that the late notice was unacceptable given that the city’s environment was already showing poor visibility and unhealthy air earlier in the morning.
“There is supposed to be emergency planning for situations like this,” Rebecca Bratspies, the director of CUNY Law School’s Center for Urban Environmental Justice Reform, told ABC News. “I was expecting the city to read the same news forecasts I had that this was happening Monday and Tuesday. They should have had a plan.”
Adams defended his administration’s approach to alerting New Yorkers about the dangers of the situation during a news conference with reporters Wednesday morning. He contended that there were no late notifications as the city’s agencies, such as the health department and OEM, were going through the rapidly changing information.
“The clouds you see over New York City was a fire thousands of miles away. This is the challenge…and there are going to be more issues like this, and there’s no blueprint or playbook for these types of issues,” he said.
“We’ve done tabletops in this administration. You want to be as prepared as possible, but there is no planning for an incident like this,” Adams added.
Bratspies, who is a board member of the city’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, countered the mayor’s claim noting that the city has delivered air quality alerts in the past and has access to the latest forecast models.
“Air masses don’t appear all of a sudden. They move slowly and you can predict how bad it will be long before it hits,” she said.
Holly Porter-Morgan, a professor of environmental science at LaGuardia Community College, told ABC News that she too thought the city didn’t do a good job informing the public as soon as there was an indication that the Air Quality Index reached dangerous levels.
Every minute that New Yorkers were exposed to that toxic air, particularly the elderly, immunocompromised and children, does more harm, she said.
“Whenever our air quality index goes above 100 there should be some sort of statement going out,” Porter-Morgan said. “There should be some directive for people, because people don’t know what to do.”
Porter-Morgan said that even though wildfire smoke is new to the northeast, Adams and other leaders in the area can take a look at the environmental policies in West Coast states for guidance.
Alistair Hayden, an assistant professor of practice at the Department of Public and ecosystem health at Cornell University, told ABC News that while local, state and federal governments must enact policies to prepare and protect the public from “smoke waves,” there is still a lot of work to be done to properly make those alerts.
“One thing I have heard from local governments is they don’t know where to get the best air quality data. There are not excellent tools to zoom down and know what exactly is going on in your community,” he said. “The research is just getting to those points now where we can use those tools, but it’s still not where we need it to be.”
Hayden, who worked in California’s Office of Emergency Services, acknowledged informing and alerting the public to environmental disasters or emergencies is complicated, as data changes constantly.
“Warning is always a tricky business because across disasters we’ve seen if you alert too early and it changes people lose trust in the alerts,” he said.
But in the meantime, Hayden said those governments can start to implement plans for these smoke waves and use the playbook for other similar situations.
For example, he said cities could use the cooling center plans, and designate certain buildings where vulnerable people can stay for clean air during the day.
Ultimately, Hayden said that public officials across the country need to take heed of what’s going on on the east coast and start coming up with policies to prevent people from getting hurt by the negative effects of climate change.
“People don’t realize how many people die in a smoke wave. This is a really important piece that we need to include in our policy at all levels,” he said. “I think we need to respond to ‘smoke waves’ with the same type of urgency of other disasters.”