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‘This was as big as it gets’: Michelle Wu’s first major snowstorm as mayor marks another early challenge

A beach chair served as a space saver in South Boston after the storm.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

As forecasts warned that a potentially historic snowstorm was descending on Boston, the meetings at City Hall grew more urgent. Updates with department heads. Game plans with public works crews and contractors. Briefings with city councilors.

By 6 Saturday morning, still in the dark, Mayor Michelle Wu was riding in a truck with Mike Brohel, the city’s superintendent of streets, surveying road conditions as the storm bore down.

“The roads look pretty good, as the snow is coming down fast,” Wu said in an interview with Brohel broadcast on social media.

Since taking office in November, Wu has faced a gauntlet of challenges, from a coronavirus surge fueled by the Omicron variant to staunch union opposition to her city employee vaccine mandate. Now she faced her first big winter storm, something that can quickly undermine confidence in a new administration.

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As Wu herself often said on the campaign trial — quoting a political mentor, the late mayor Thomas M. Menino — you can’t do the big things if you can’t do the basic things, like clearing streets, right.

But by many accounts, the Wu administration’s response to Saturday’s storm, which dumped about 2 feet of snow in a day, tying a record — was a success, even as the mayor acknowledged some shortcomings. Roads were mostly cleared, and the sidewalks shoveled. The timing of the storm on a weekend was fortuitous, allowing most people to stay home. But by Monday, schools opened bright and early, along with community centers and libraries. Trash pickup remained as scheduled.

“This was as big as it gets,” said Thomas Tinlin, a former state highway administrator and Menino’s commissioner of transportation for years. Storms, they can be “a political time bomb placed in your hand; you’re going to be judged and judged harshly if you miss certain things. Sometimes you felt there was no answer,” he said.

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But, after handling a major storm, you get to check that off the list — these folks know how to fight snow,” he said.

On social media, the reviews were generally positive. One woman tweeted to Wu and public works crews, “Great job . . . on snow removal. I can’t speak for other neighborhoods but West Roxbury looks great. The new administration passed its first snow storm test with flying colors. Thank you!”

On Beacon Hill, Dianne Powers, who works at the Hill House Community Center, said Monday she was surprised how clear the streets were, and that schools opened on time.

“That the schools are open when you have two feet of snow is really kind of amazing,” she said.

Powers noted, however, that several sidewalks remained treacherous, particularly for seniors who live in the area. “It’s really not safe for them,” she said. “I was shocked, actually, when I was walking.”

In Roxbury, one man out shoveling said the city could have done a better job plowing the turning lanes.

“She just got here, so I’m not ready to give her a bunch of blame yet,” said a 61-year-old named Dana, who declined to give his last name. “But I will say that this happens every single year.”

In Boston, approval ratings can hinge on how well crews can shovel and salt a sidewalk, the bread and butter of constituency services.

Menino, known as the urban mechanic of mayors, had his own occasional struggles with winter storms, including one in 2007 that resulted in a traffic nightmare and led to a public spat with then-governor Deval Patrick. In 2015, a year after taking office, former mayor Martin J. Walsh took note of the toll that year’s winter season — a wearying succession of snowstorms — had taken on his administration.

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“It’s getting frustrating, even for myself,” Walsh told news reporters in mid-February after yet another storm. “God knows how long, how many weeks, we’ll be doing this.”

Patrick Brophy, who worked in the Menino administration and later served as Walsh’s chief of operations, recalled the adrenaline rush that kicked in when a significant snowstorm was on the way. And the long checklist it produced. Confirm plans with private plow contractors. Check salt and sand reserves, and recheck. Inspect trees so they don’t hit wires. Recheck the forecast. Update the press. Open emergency shelters.

In the end, it was often the little things that seemed to carry symbolic weight, such as clearing off the steps to City Hall.

“You get judged by that, you were judged by how well you were doing; is the city cleaning its own [stairs],” he recalled.

City Council President Ed Flynn said the mayor’s office briefed him and other councilors, on Friday, drawing out plans for basic constituent services and encouraging councilors to lean on their neighborhoods to help one another. Help shovel out a fire hydrant, or a neighbors’ walkway. Check in on vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the homeless.

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Flynn, a Navy veteran who was eager to help with emergency management preparations, said he was impressed with Wu’ leadership, particularly her willingness to listen to those who have conducted storm preparations for years.

“I think she did a very good job bringing people together, bringing city government together, and the neighborhoods,” he said. “When it comes to snow removal, there’s no Democrat or Republican way to do it, it’s about working hard, rolling up your sleeves, getting the job done.”

On Sunday, Wu announced that the city could be lifting its snow emergency and parking ban by 6 the following morning. The Public Works Department had used more than 920 pieces of snow and ice control equipment to treat and clear the streets.

The city sent out an advisory reminding property owners to clear off sidewalks. Space savers would be good for 48 hours.

On Monday, Wu returned to Twitter for an poststorm assessment.

“Wanted to share some thoughts as we’re still digging out before the evening commute,” she said. Most roads were cleared, she said. Some sidewalks weren’t, and some bus stops were blocked. Teams were working on resolving them, she said.

“We’ll keep pushing to connect and strengthen city services wherever possible!” she wrote.

Globe correspondents Rose Pecci and Grace Gilson contributed to this report.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.