Disabled in New York to See Better Access to Disaster Centers

By LARRY NEUMEISTER | October 3, 2014

Advocates and New York City city officials on Wednesday said they’ve struck a deal to protect nearly 900,000 residents with disabilities during disasters.

The deal resulted from a federal class action lawsuit brought in 2011, a year before Superstorm Sandy left many disabled residents stranded in high-rise buildings and other areas, unsure where to turn for help. It calls for disaster centers to be upgraded to accommodate 120,000 disabled people by September 2017, with improvements to accommodate from 10,000 to 17,000 people by the middle of this month, advocates said.

“We think this is really significant,” said Christine Chuang, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law firm that pursues litigation to help the disabled in a city with the most high-rise buildings in America.

She said the dramatic increase in available shelter space and improved communications would make the city better equipped to care for those with special needs during emergencies than any other U.S. city.

Among improvements, the plan calls for the city by August 2017 to have in place a canvassing operation in which people will go door to door after a disaster to assess the needs of the disabled, including their access to food, water, electricity, medical care and medical equipment.

The city’s top attorney, Zachary Carter, said in a statement he was `”xtremely pleased.” He said the deal will put “our city at the forefront of emergency preparedness nationwide in assuring that individuals with disabilities will have meaningful access to essential services during emergencies.”

Victor Calise, commissioner of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office for People with Disabilities, said the city hoped to be “the leader in providing equal access to emergency services for every individual regardless of their ability.”

The lawsuit that spurred the deal was filed by two nonprofit groups – the Center for the Independence of the Disabled and the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled – and two disabled people.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, who must approve the agreement, ruled the city of about 8.5 million residents had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York City Human Rights Law by failing to ensure people with disabilities can evacuate before or during an emergency.

“Hurricane Sandy dramatically demonstrated the consequences of this failure,” the judge said. “Plaintiffs provided substantial evidence that people with disabilities … remained trapped in high-rise buildings for days after the storm.”

The judge said there was no evidence the city intentionally discriminated against people with disabilities. But he said laws “seek to prevent not only intentional discrimination against people with disabilities, but also – indeed, primarily – discrimination that results from ‘benign neglect.”‘

He questioned the city’s planning priorities, noting that the special needs coordinator within the city’s Office of Emergency Management has no staff.

The deal calls for the city to hire a disability and access and functional needs coordinator to ensure emergency plans adequately accommodate people with disabilities. A special task force will create and implement a high-rise evacuation plan by September 2018.

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