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Boro braces for blizzard but gets gentle coating

The major snow event predicted over...

By Betsy Scheinbart

“What storm?” New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik chuckled Monday afternoon after forecasts of the worst blizzard in a half century shuttered the public school system in Queens and the rest of the city.

The major snow event predicted over the weekend by the National Weather Service and just about every meteorologist in the business turned out to be less than half a foot of snow, sleet, and mush for Queens — when the white stuff finally arrived 24 hours late.

Some forecasters went so far as to warn Queens residents that the killer storm would be the worst in 50 years and could dump as much as two feet on the borough, like the blizzard that hit the city in 1969, when then-Mayor John Lindsay failed to have 15 inches of snow plowed from Queens streets.

But by Sunday, the storm’s path had shifted and the weather forecasters eventually changed their predictions to lighter snow and sleet for Monday.

Even with the change in the forecast, grocery shoppers were not to be deterred from their weekend assault on Queens supermarkets, stocking up on perishables like milk and bread.

“Saturday and Sunday was beyond belief,” said Whitestone resident Ceal Malizia, who works at the Walbaums in Bay Terrace. “The lines were all the way down to the middle of the isles.”

Malizia said the eggs were the first to disappear, but by Sunday shoppers had also bought out all of the milk. She said a nearby bakery ran out of bread Sunday and was forced to sell breadsticks to hungry customers.

Donna Smith searched her Flushing neighborhood for bread Sunday, but only found hamburger and hot-dog buns at her local Pathmark. “The stores made out like bandits,” she said.

Many Queens residents stayed at home Monday, leaving the streets empty, the Long Island Rail Road short on riders, and the subways a little less crowded.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gathered Kerik, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy, and other city official Monday afternoon for a news conference at which they said the extensive preparations for the storm were justified in light of the severe weather predictions.

Many flights in and out of the two Queens airports were canceled Monday and Tuesday, leaving airport lobbies deserted. On Monday, 70 percent of the flights in and out of LaGuardia Airport were canceled, while more than 45 percent were canceled Tuesday.

John F. Kennedy International Airport fared better, operating at more than 60 percent of capacity Monday and better than 90 percent Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the city Department of Transportation worked around-the-clock to keep the roads safe, applying salt to the Queensboro Bridge 15 times by Monday.

“We have been assured that the same number of workers and vehicles are available as last year,” said Dan Andrews, spokesman Borough President Claire Shulman.

“There have not been any complaints to the office of constituent services” about road conditions in Queens Tuesday, Andrews said. “And from what I can see here, the streets look pretty clear.”

Andrews said the closing of public schools Monday “seemed reasonable at the time, given the forecast.”

The storm “certainly did not materialize as it was predicted,” Andrews said, “but the forecast Sunday was pretty dire.”

The police department did not have any major Queens automobile accidents to report Tuesday, said Detective Valerie St. Rose, a spokeswoman for the NYPD.

Levy said he made the decision to close the public schools Monday because “I didn’t want to take the risk of having 180 thousand kids in buses” when the forecast called for icy conditions.

Giuliani urged children to use their day off to visit local libraries, but all the Queens Borough Public Libraries closed early Monday and remained closed until 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Carol Gresser, a Douglaston resident who served as the president of the city Board of Education from 1990 to 1998, said Tuesday she sympathized with Levy’s difficult position.

“I can understand that with the big hype the storm was getting that the chancellor would feel it was safe to keep the kids home from school,” Gresser said.

Even though snow began to fall in earnest Monday night, Levy decided that students would have to return to school Tuesday.

Schoolchildren sludged through several inches of snow Tuesday morning, many carrying little umbrellas and holding their parents’ hands to keep from slipping on the icy sidewalks.

As the snowfall continued through the morning hours Tuesday, Gresser said she began to worry about the children’s trip home.

“Maybe we should have given the day off today,” Gresser said, “it’s a tough call.”

Only one school in Queens, Holy Cross High School in Flushing, was closed Tuesday, but many borough events were canceled or delayed until further notice, including Jewish Heritage Day at St. John’s University. The presentation of an anti-bias handbook to local schools and libraries from the Anti-Defamation League was also postponed in Long Island City.

And the sentencing in a high-profile Bayside High School sodomy case was also postponed Tuesday.

By noon Tuesday, the bulk of the snow had already fallen, said Pete Wichawski, a meteorologist with the New York State branch of the National Weather Service, and precipitation totals were about five inches at LaGuardia Airport and four inches at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Several news channels reported heavier snow in Queens than in Manhattan, but Wichawski said the snowfall was fairly uniform across the New York metropolitan area.

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 138.

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