Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Stringer via Getty
Hundreds of Canadian wildfires have blanketed the northeast with apocalyptic and dangerous smoke. For a period this week, New York City had the most polluted air of any major city in the world. But as of 5 p.m. on Wednesday, after the city had been enveloped in a hellscape of fire smoke so thick residents had to turn on lights indoors at 2 p.m. and air quality readings dropped well into the hazardous zone, the official response from the city had been limited to canceling parks department and outdoor school events while also, for some reason, suspending alternate side parking, a ritual for city car owners that involves them sitting in their cars to avoid getting a parking ticket.
At a press conference Wednesday morning, New York City mayor Eric Adams, when challenged on the administration’s slow and generally absentee response to the public health crisis, defended his administration’s response by saying, “There is no blueprint or playbook for these types of issues…You want to be as prepared as possible but there is no planning for an incident like this.” It is not clear what would be worse: If Adams is correct and the city truly has no plan or playbook for something scientists have been warning us about for years, or if the playbook exists and Adams is simply unaware of it. Such playbooks certainly do exist. After devastating wildfires in 2018, California passed a law requiring cities and counties to make a wildfire smoke air pollution emergency plan. These plans are readily available online. For example, here is Sacramento’s. It has handy charts color-coded to coordinate with air quality levels providing clear instructions on what steps to take once certain levels are reached. For example, all landscaping activities are discontinued when AQI reaches 200 or above and distribution of N95 masks at 300 and above. There are also plans for how to assist vulnerable populations such as homeless people.There is also a New York City office specifically tasked with this kind of planning. It is called the Office of Emergency Management. Here are their publicly available plans for events that range from occurring every few years to never occurring in NYC before: building collapses and explosions, carbon monoxide poisoning, hurricanes, disease outbreaks and “biological emergencies,” earthquakes, extreme heat, fire, flooding, chemical spills and radiation poisoning, high winds, “terrorism,” thunderstorms, tornadoes, utility disruptions, and blizzards. However, notably absent from this list is hazardous air quality or wildfire smoke. When asked by Motherboard if Adams is correct and the city truly has no plan for this, New York City Office of Emergency Management spokesperson Ashleigh Holmes told Motherboard, “NYCEM creates and updates the City’s emergency plans for a range of natural and man-made hazards, including the current hazardous air quality event.” Motherboard asked to see this plan but did not receive a reply.Wildfire smoke of this magnitude is a new phenomenon to New York City, but hazardous air quality is not. Smog used to be a major public health crisis in cities before industry and car pollutants were more tightly regulated. And wildfire smoke has drifted over New York City in recent years, most recently in 2021. And while the magnitude of the current crisis may have crept up on everyone, the eventuality that extreme wildfire smoke would permeate the country’s most populous city was extremely predictable in the long run. Either there is truly no plan for this extremely predictable event or there is a plan and it is not being enacted.