Judge Flunks NYC in Disaster Plans for Disabled

NEW YORK (AP) -

New York City violated laws designed to protect the disabled because its otherwise laudable evacuation plans for emergencies such as Superstorm Sandy or 9/11 fall short of adequately caring for about 11 percent of the city’s population, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Judge Jesse Furman found that the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the NYC Human Rights Law since plans fail to ensure that people with disabilities can evacuate before or during an emergency and fail to provide accessible shelters. He said they also do not sufficiently inform the disabled about the availability and location of accessible emergency services.

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

Furman highlighted several areas of concern, saying the city’s evacuation plans do not meet the needs of disabled people in high-rise buildings and its shelters are not required to be sufficiently accessible to the disabled. However, he also noted that the city took several actions in response to Superstorm Sandy that are not included in its emergency plans, including canvassing buildings after a prolonged power outage and providing a sign language interpreter at the mayor’s news conferences.

The ruling came in a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of the 890,000 of New York’s more than 8 million residents. He said his ruling was limited to the question of liability, and he will decide remedies separately unless the parties reach a settlement.

In a statement, Michael A. Cardozo, who heads the city’s law office, said lawyers were “continuing to review this decision and assess our next steps.”

“While we are disappointed with the court’s conclusions, we are gratified it recognized that the city’s extensive planning is impressive,” he said.

Julia Pinover, the senior staff attorney for Disability Rights Advocates who argued the case, said the “ramifications nationwide are huge” if New York City sets the standard for helping the disabled during emergencies and inspires “municipalities country-wide to think through the sufficiency of their own plans.”

Tania Morales, a 26-year-old plaintiff who has used a wheelchair for more than a decade, said the ruling was “such a relief.” She said she got to a shelter during Hurricane Irene in 2011 only to find a locked gate surrounding the wheelchair entrance. “I was terrified and forced to return home in the storm.”