disaster watch

City Nearly Two Years Late on Making 60 Evacuation Shelters Accessible

The city has an emergency shelter inside a public school building on Hester Street in the Lower East Side.
The city has an emergency shelter inside a public school building on Hester Street in the Lower East Side. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The de Blasio administration is nearly two years behind on its legal commitment to make at least 60 emergency shelters accessible to people with disabilities, court papers show.

City Hall is inching into the homestretch, with a new deadline of January for meeting its court-mandated goal of accommodating 120,000 people with special needs during disasters. But people with disabilities and their advocates say there’s no time to waste.

“It’s important for this to be in place,” said Melba Torres, 57, who has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair.

Torres recalled struggling through 36 hours at an Upper East Side shelter that lacked accessible beds or bathrooms during Hurricane Irene in 2011. Two aides were forced to carry her whenever she needed a restroom and left her sleeping upright in her motorized chair, she said.

The following year, Torres was stranded in her eighth floor NYCHA apartment in the East Village for days during Superstorm Sandy, after the building’s elevators were shut off earlier than planned.

“Once you live through something like this, it will never leave your memory… I definitely would not want to go through it again,” said Torres, who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city. “We should not be treated as if we’re the least-served, or the not-served-at-all — the third-class citizens of the world.”

A Major Caveat on Preparations

The city agreed as part of a legal settlement in 2014 to complete the 60 evacuation centers by September 2017. The deal came after a Manhattan federal judge found the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed to properly account for people with disabilities in its emergency planning.

Leaders at the advocacy groups Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled and the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York — which filed the class-action lawsuit against the city in September 2011 — say they’ve gotten confirmation from the city that 49 of the required 60 evacuation shelters have been made accessible.

Officials at the city’s Office of Emergency Management say the current total is 54, with six more due by January.

But the advocates say both of those figures come with a significant asterisk: All of the sites counted as accessible require last-minute maneuvering to make them usable for people with disabilities.

Melba Torres, 57, has had terrible ordeals at city properties during major storms.
Melba Torres, 57, has had terrible ordeals at city properties during major storms. Photo: Yoav Gonen/THE CITY

This includes the removal of potential hazards at each site — and, in at least one case, the installation of a temporary ramp before or immediately after a disaster.

“The day the shelters open is, in my personal experience, rather chaotic. Sometimes the shelter coordinator simply doesn’t show up. Or key volunteers don’t show up,” said Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York.

“We profoundly disagreed that they could all be fixed on the day-of,” she added. “We expressed great uncertainty about who would do it… [but the city] decided to do what they did anyway.”

Office of Emergency Management officials reiterated their commitment to abiding by the settlement, and expressed confidence in the improvements made to disaster evacuation planning.

They said all the shelters are at public schools, which is why steps have to be taken to convert them to full accessibility. They noted that staff typically will have days to complete the work ahead of an evacuation order.

“The city conducts multiple accessibility trainings per year to prepare staff to work at accessible hurricane evacuation centers,” said Omar Bourne, an OEM spokesperson. “We are confident that our staff is equipped to serve people with disabilities at our hurricane evacuation centers during an emergency.”

False Advertising Cited

The complaint in the evacuation shelters case cited a host of failures at centers listed as being accessible — but were later discovered to not live up to their billing.

“Ramps into shelters were often makeshift or too steep and dangerous to use. Other ramps that should have been usable led to locked doors for which shelter volunteers did not have keys,” the Sept. 26, 2011, complaint reads.

Shelter accessibility needs also include refrigerators to store certain medicines, special signs for people with vision impairments, and other accommodations, according to the terms of the settlement.

Advocates give the city credit for meeting many of the other requirements of the 2014 settlement, including creating a post-emergency canvassing operation to check on the elderly and disabled door by door, improving evacuation transportation plans and convening a high-rise evacuation task force.

But the advocates say they’ve gotten few assurances that the city’s plans will go smoothly given a host of outstanding concerns — including over the quality and frequency of the trainings for evacuation personnel.

“I think the real question aside from their poor work on getting shelters in place is whether, in an emergency, everything will really work for people — and I think that’s just hard to say right now,” said Joe Rapapport, director of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled. “We are worried. I think there’s cause to worry. But it’s hard to judge.”

The city’s scramble to fulfill its legal mandate comes amid a series of similar lawsuit settlements in recent years sparked by complaints about the disparate treatment of people with disabilities.

Last week, following a decades-old court case, the city committed to making sidewalk curb corners fully accessible within 15 years.

This followed similar lawsuit-sparked promises by the city in 2017 to make homeless shelters more accessible, and in 2013 to make half of yellow taxis accessible by 2020.

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