Public Advocate's Statement On The Administration's Defense Of Its Air Quality Response

July 12th, 2023

Press Release

After releasing 'Orange Sky, Red Alert' – a report on the city’s response to the air quality emergencies– the Public Advocate spoke at a City Council oversight hearing today on the same topic. He released the following statement after questioning NYC Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol about the administration’s actions.

“The Adams administration seems to be the only people in New York who believe that their response to the city’s air quality emergency was appropriate given the information we had and the hazards we faced. Their consistent refusal to admit errors or inadequacies can prevent reforms that would better inform and protect New Yorkers. 

We all agree that the air quality was ultimately worse than was forecasted. That is not an excuse for failure to inform New Yorkers in advance about the potential for unhealthy air and precautions they could take. Additionally, the commissioner repeatedly insisted that the forecasted quality only endangered “sensitive groups” – yet failed to provide any evidence that these groups, or the city at large, was made aware of this danger. New Yorkers had little knowledge, context, or protections before the sky burned orange, because the administration had not proactively primed the public with information as it would with any other climate hazard.  

My office’s report lays out a series of recommendations for practices and protections moving forward, and I would be eager to partner with the administration to implement them. In fact, the second time the air quality deteriorated, the city’s response was more proactive. But in order for government to work together to address problems, we have to be ready to admit that those problems exist.”

Video of the Council hearing is available here. The Public Advocate Advocate's opening statement begins at 00:10:21, and his discussion with Commissioner Zach Iscol begins at 01:11:12. The full opening statement as delivered is below, and Orange Sky, Red Alert can be downloaded here.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEES ON HEALTH, OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS, AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION, RESILIENCY AND WATERFRONTS

JULY 12, 2023

Good morning, 

My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chairs Schulman, Brewer and Gennaro and the members of the Committees on Health, Oversight and Investigations and Environmental Protection, Resiliency and Waterfronts for holding this important hearing. 

Just four weeks ago, our city faced an unprecedented air quality crisis when smoke from over 400 wildfires in Canada were pushed into our city. Unlike our West Coast sister cities, who routinely deal with wildfire smoke and its harmful effects due to drought and long wildfire seasons, New Yorkers were not prepared for the poor air quality that arose during the week of June 4th. The COVID-19 pandemic should have prepared us in delivering speedy communication around this issue; instead, the failure to prepare and respond to this event was not only a failure at the city level but at all levels of government. 

Over the past few weeks, my office has been corresponding with officials from West Coast municipalities like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego, gathering best practices and resources on how New York City can best respond to this crisis when it arises in the future. As we’ve seen over these past few weeks, with a mere shift of the wind, wildfire smoke has the ability to impact New Yorkers’ daily life and we must be prepared to meet those instances as they arise. From these conversations, we compiled a list of recommendations, which can be read in our report “Orange Sky, Red Alert”, that we urge our city and state partners to implement in order to proactively respond to these air quality issues as they arise. This report also finds shortcomings in the city’s response to the air quality emergency, and particularly the lack of speed and scope of our public notification system and hazard mitigation efforts.

As we’ve seen, climate change is rapidly reshaping natural hazards at an alarming rate of pace and it will not wait for us to be prepared. But it is no longer enough to reflect and develop plans for what we’ve already encountered thus far, we must also anticipate and prepare for the unforeseen in order to keep our city safe and healthy.

I do want to just say, notwithstanding the mayor’s comments that folks are criticizing just to criticize – nothing could be further from the truth – it is part of my job to review what the city is doing and make sure that we can do things better. 

I also just want to put out there – I don’t think there’s any way any of us could have been prepared for a sky on fire and how poor the air quality was at that time. What I have focused on is preparation, information, and communication, and it does seem that we were not prepared to communicate as effectively and accurately as we could have. I noticed in the op-ed that information was sent out, I think that is true. I just want to be clear that NotifyNYC is not the most effective way to put information out there. When the Yankee game happened the day before, we had reached levels of 200. And so they should have been more effective and more urgent to let people know how bad the air quality was at that time. When it is 200, it is starting to be dangerous for members of the general public, not just those with underlying conditions. 

During COVID, we saw press conferences daily that helped us back up our communications. I think had the mayor and commissioner done a press conference sooner, and really dug into how bad the air quality might be, we would have had a better chance to understand what to do when the sky caught on fire.

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