Federal Judge: New York City’s Disaster Plan Discriminates Against Disabled People


Here’s another nice parting gift for the Bloomberg administration in its waning days: a massive ruling issued late yesterday by a federal judge in New York’s Southern District found that the city’s emergency management plan discriminates against people with disabilities. The judge, Jesse M. Furman, devoted a full 119 pages to outlining all the ways the city — and Michael Bloomberg specifically, in his capacity as mayor — has failed to accommodate the city’s nearly 900,000 disabled people during disasters like hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

“Most significantly,” Furman wrote, “the City’s plans are inadequate to ensure that people with disabilities are able to evacuate before or during an emergency; they fail to provide sufficiently accessible shelters; and they do not sufficiently inform people with disabilities of the availability and location of accessible emergency services.”

These “failures,” the judge added, weren’t the result of intentional discrimination, but rather “benign neglect.” But that benign neglect has the potential for dire consequences. For one, the city doesn’t require high-rise buildings to keep any emergency evacuation devices on hand to help disabled people get out. What’s more, the judge wrote, “the City does not, in fact, have any plan for how people who cannot evacuate on their own … will be evacuated in these circumstances.” If disaster strikes suddenly, there is no guarantee that they’ll be able to get to safety. The judge found “substantial evidence that people with disabilities were stuck in high-rise buildings after the storm.”

The lawsuit was filed just after Hurricane Irene by two nonprofits, the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled and the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, as well as two individuals, Tania Morales and Gregory Bell. Bell is blind and suffers from PTSD, while Morales uses a wheelchair.

Both Bell and Morales had a rather disturbing amount of trouble accessing emergency services during Irene and again during Sandy. One small example: Bell testified that during Sandy he tried to use Access-A-Ride to evacuate his home “but Access-A-Ride dispatch did not answer the phone.” Morales needed to see her doctor several days after Sandy, according to her trial testimony, “but she was unable to get there because the MTA buses were too crowded for her to board in her wheelchair, and Access-A-Ride did not answer the phone.”

The trial also revealed neither the police nor the fire department has anyone on staff to ensure that their disaster plans take people with disabilities into account, and that city shelters aren’t sufficiently accessible to the disabled. As for the city government itself, the Office of Emergency Management had a special needs coordinator named Aaron Belisle until August 2012, when he moved to another job at the department. He’s never been replaced. Belisle has been trying to do both his old and new jobs for the entire period of the trial, a period of time which includes Hurricane Sandy.

Although Furman ruled that New York’s emergency management plan does violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legal requirements to keep the disabled safe, he still found some nice things to say. “[T]he City’s emergency preparedness plans fall short of legal requirements in several significant respects, [but] they are still remarkable in many ways,” he wrote. “The challenges facing cities in general, and this city in particular, are immense, and New York City has done an admirable job of preparing for a wide range of disasters, both manmade and natural, that could strike at almost any time.”

Nonetheless, it certainly looks like this decision will lead to a costly emergency management overhaul. Michael Cardozo, a lawyer for the city, told the New York Times that while they were “disappointed” with the ruling, “we are gratified it recognized that the city’s extensive planning is impressive.” He also said they were “continuing to review this decision and assess our next steps.” A spokesperson for Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio declined to comment on the decision to the NYT.

Furman also wrote in his ruling that the actions the city will be required to take will be addressed during the next phase of the case. That could take a while. In other words: this is de Blasio’s problem now.

The full ruling is on the following page.

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Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled v. Bloomberg.pdf