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Can Roker, de Blasio both be right?

By Errol Louis, CNN Commentator
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Vehicles are piled up in an wreck Friday, February 14, in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Traffic accidents involving multiple tractor-trailers and dozens of cars completely blocked one side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike outside Philadelphia. Vehicles are piled up in an wreck Friday, February 14, in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Traffic accidents involving multiple tractor-trailers and dozens of cars completely blocked one side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike outside Philadelphia.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis says de Blasio, Roker both correct in dustup over closing schools
  • He says mayor angered Roker by erroneously blaming weather service for incorrect forecast
  • He says many kids need hot meals school provide; snow days cut into school calendar
  • Louis: Roker right, but deBlasio had tough choice; as winter wears on, expect more caution

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

(CNN) -- The high-profile public spat between New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and weather forecaster Al Roker over how to handle a big winter storm was bound to turn nasty, because both men were, in a sense, correct.

De Blasio enraged thousands of parents -- including Roker -- by keeping schools open through a storm that dumped 11 inches of snow on the city. The mayor made matters worse by appearing to blame the unpopular decision on the National Weather Service, claiming that its forecasts before the storm were inaccurate (they weren't).

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

And de Blasio's schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, added fuel to the fire by cheerfully referring to "absolutely a beautiful day out there" in the snow-paralyzed city.

Roker's flurry of tweets, castigating the administration and predicting a single term for de Blasio, channeled the anger felt by thousands of parents. In fact, most city parents kept their kids home, and many of them posted angry notes on the education department's Facebook page.

There's no question de Blasio mishandled the politics of the situation -- it was easy to show that the weather service and local meterologists had all predicted a big storm -- but the mayor could have defused much of the anger by pointing out that the schools, for New York's poor families, are a place where kids can get a free meal each day.

De Blasio also deserves sympathy points for managing New York's screwy calendar, which accommodates so many ethnic and religious holidays that the city has only three snow days, after which it runs the risk of falling below the minimum 180 school days per year required under state law.

Was Al Roker right about NYC schools?
Al Roker blasts de Blasio on Twitter
Kohn: Roker stuck shovel where it doesn't belong

Although no fewer than six winter storms have hit the city since he took office, de Blasio has already called one snow day (less than nearby suburban jurisidictions, which have closed schools four times this season), leaving him with a powerful incentive to keep the schools open even on a day with crummy weather. The alternative would be to extend the school year into the summer or cut into spring break or other popular holidays.

So the mayor, caught between a rock and a hard place, chose to feed low-income New Yorkers and avoided tampering with the spring and summer vacation plans of students' families. And he had to make the call about 10:30 the night before the storm, because it takes hours to shut down a public system that serves more than a million kids.

But Roker, the legendary weather forecaster, was also right to complain that meteorologists from the National Weather Service and local stations have given accurate storm information to cities and states, only to see the information ignored, second-guessed or misinterpreted. Only a few weeks ago, Roker publicly went after Georgia officials, including Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, for not properly preparing state highways for a winter storm that was accurately forecast. The result was life-threatening chaos.

"This was poor planning on the mayor's part and the governor's part, pure and simple," Roker said. "They were warned about it. They should have been prepared for it. And people are still suffering."

De Blasio's blown call won't be the last time officials catch hell from meteorologists, although it seems clear politicians will take greater care to err on the side of caution as the nation slouches through a winter season that we'd all like to put in the rear-view mirror.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis.

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