Jesse Furman, a federal court judge for the Southern District of New York ruled this month in a class action lawsuit brought by Disability Right Advocates (DRA), a non-profit legal Center, against the city of New York for emergency planning that neglected the needs of over 900,000 city residents with disabilities. DRA represented multiple plaintiffs including The Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID), the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY) and individual plaintiffs Gregory D. Bell and Tania Morales. Advocates argued that the City’s emergency plan inadequately addressed the needs of individuals with disabilities during hurricane Irene and super-storm Sandy. The specific areas of concerns brought by plaintiffs argued that New York City ; (1) lacks adequate evacuation plans and capabilities to move individuals with disabilities from high-rise apartments; (2) relied heavily on inaccessible transportation and did not plan for the level of need for wheelchair accessible vehicles for evacuation; (3) shelter plans did not require that the shelter system be sufficiently accessible, architecturally or programmatically, to accommodate people with disabilities in emergency; and (4) did not provide for accessible communications during an emergency, at shelters, and failed to provide adequate information on existing accessible services.
The lawsuit began well before the latest disaster, and stemmed from concerns of how the City handled hurricane Irene. Filed in September of 2011, the plaintiff’s position in the case only strengthened over time as the city was hit by super storm Sandy in 2012 when the exact same concerns became evident once again. Tonia Morales, a plaintiff in the case, is a 26-year-old resident of Brooklyn who uses a wheelchair to get around her apartment. Describing her experience in 2011 she states “During Hurricane Irene, I managed to get to a shelter but there was a locked gate surrounding the wheelchair entrance. I couldn’t get inside. With no place to go and no emergency information about what I should do, I was terrified and forced to return home in the storm.” The case went to trial in March 2013, the first of its kind in the country. According to DRA “the trial demonstrated that disabled and elderly New Yorkers suffered needlessly in recent hurricanes because of the City’s lack of planning for their needs.”
Plaintiffs also stressed that emergency preparedness was not just critical in regards to physical access and clear communication but also for providing individuals the necessary foresight and knowledge to anticipate and prepare for a variety of emergencies. Some individuals with disabilities are affected in different ways, whether it is the physical need to maneuver one’s self differently, or analyzing and sifting through rapid and difficult to discern information at a moment’s notice. Many witnesses were called to testify, many of whom highlighted these concerns, including a woman with visual impairment who stated that, “as a result of my blindness and PTSD, I am unable to react as quickly and as easily to new and dangerous situations without accommodations. Because of my disabilities, I need to plan ahead to make sure that my needs would be met during travel and at the shelter.”
Of primary focus in the case was the City’s network of responders, their level of coordination, individual and interactive responsibilities, and their systems of authority and approval. The City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is responsible for coordinating the City’s emergency planning and response to emergency situations which includes ‘preparing the City’s emergency plan, conducting trainings and exercises, and overseeing the City’s extensive education and outreach programs.’ Within the OEM exists the Special Needs Coordinator, ‘whose role it is to advocate within OEM for people with special needs and to provide guidance on incorporating the needs of people with disabilities into the City’s emergency plan.’ Aaron Belisle, the Coordinator until August 2012, testified on the importance of incorporating the needs of individuals with disabilities within the emergency plan and exposed several startling facts about OEM. Belisle stated that though he was responsible for making recommendations regarding the City’s core emergency plans, he lacked the authority to reject or approve anything in the final plan. In fact, OEM contains six managerial levels, of which the Special Needs Coordinator is at the lowest. Moreover, the position of the Special Needs Coordinator has no staff, meaning that out of the 200 emergency management employees at the agency, Mr. Belisle is the sole employee at the office whose job specifically includes representing people with disabilities in disaster preparedness.
In his 119 page ruling, Judge Furman acknowledged the difficulties as well as the successes the government has made addressing emergencies as a whole, stating, “planning for, and responding to, emergencies and disasters is a Herculean task, and that, in many-perhaps most-respects, the city has done an outstanding job.” Nonetheless the court acknowledged the failures of the government in the particular field of handling and preparing for disasters as it pertains to individuals with disabilities. Several assertions in the final opinion included; “[that] the city fails to accommodate the communication needs of people with disabilities; sheltering plans do not ensure effective communication with people with disabilities; for some, the ability to meaningfully access the city’s sheltering services also depends on access to electricity. Without electricity, those who, for example, depend on ventilators or power wheelchairs will be less healthy, safe, and independent at a shelter than people without disabilities; [and finally], the city’s provisions of supplies required by people with disabilities, such as accessible costs, solely to SMNSs (Special Medical Needs Shelters) is impermissible.” The many findings outlined in Judge Furman’s decision will be deliberated by both parties in order to come to an agreement on the plaintiff’s compensation, and more importantly the future policy changes that will be designed and implemented to prevent future violations and potential human harm. For more, go to dralegal.org or read the full opinion on their website @ http://dralegal.org/sites/dralegal.org/files/Grace/159_opinion_and_order.pdf