The Amazing Race: How Hurricane Sandy Scrambled the Political Landscape

INITIALLY, MAYOR BLOOMBERG’S handling of the storm was deemed exemplary. He ordered an evacuation of the city’s low-lying areas and opened city shelters while aggressively sounding the alarm before the floodwaters rolled in. Later, his low-key if businesslike demeanor in a series of press conferences (enlivened by his intriguingly effusive ASL interpreter) was almost soothing in its professorial tranquility.

Calm in a storm can only take you so far, though, as Mr. Bloomberg discovered in subsequent days. Fuel shortages, looting and continued power outages led to angry residents and harsh headlines. Those emotions faded as the city’s infrastructure returned and lights started to flicker on, but Mr. Bloomberg’s convincing performance of nonchalance may have turned prematurely into the real thing: as part of his effort to maintain a sense of normalcy, he vowed to continue with the planned New York City Marathon. The decision provoked the outrage of politicians in the hard-hit outerboroughs as well as the city’s tabloids. “Like hell,” scoffed The New York Post, adding, “Mayor Mike’s trademark Manhattan myopia is back.”

The anti-marathon backlash reached such a fever pitch that, by Friday evening, a person claiming to be an employee of the race’s host, New York Road Runners, sent a blistering, if anonymous, letter to the media calling for the marathon’s cancellation.

“I feel bad writing this,” the person wrote. “I have seen friends and coworkers work incredibly hard this year and in years past to put this event together … But for me, that is all gone … As an employee of New York Road Runners, a New Yorker, a runner, and a person I firmly believe that holding this race is wrong.”

Eventually, Mr. Bloomberg succumbed to the pressure and cancelled the marathon. It was a rare walk-back for a mayor who rarely suffers from self-doubt—and another sign that even the most skilled politician sometimes misreads the mood in times of crisis.

Meanwhile, though most of the media attention was focused on New York City and New Jersey, Gov. Andrew Cuomo played a central role in the response efforts—and stayed in front of the cameras. Having savaged his predecessor, George Pataki, for his seemingly lackadaisical response to the 9/11 attacks—“Pataki stood behind the leader,” he said at the time. “He held the leader’s coat … Cream rises to the top, and Rudy Giuliani rose to the top”—Mr. Cuomo seized control of the response.  The storm saw the typically media-shy governor sitting down for interviews with several national television news hosts including Anderson Cooper, Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer and Rachel Maddow. On the topic of the state’s crisis-response efforts, Mr. Cuomo couldn’t help but sound, well, presidential. And he received national attention when, sitting across from Ms. Sawyer, he boldly addressed the elephant in the room—if not quite by name.

“I think Al Gore is right,” Mr. Cuomo said, raising the specter of climate change. “We have a ‘one hundred year flood’ every two years now! I think, at this point, it is undeniable that we have a higher frequency of these extreme weather situations. We’re going to have to deal with it.”

And where the mayor tended to shrug his shoulders at certain problems he described as beyond his control, Mr. Cuomo displayed a touch of aggression. After utility companies suggested it might take 10 days or more to restore electricity in some areas, he dashed off a letter to their CEOs threatening to revoke their licenses to do business in his state—then released it to the media.

“This is not just about effort,” he said at a press conference announcing the move. “This is about getting the job done.”

Political prognostication is a more inexact science than even meteorology. But it seems altogether possible we will be seeing that clip again a few years down the road, if Mr. Cuomo takes on Mr. Christie in 2016, Mr. Bloomberg endorses someone or other, and Mr. Booker solves the global warming crisis, reversing time itself by racing around the earth’s axis backward, really, really fast.

This story has been updated to reflect the result of the presidential election.  

The Amazing Race: How Hurricane Sandy Scrambled the Political Landscape