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For Disabled New Yorkers, Effects From Hurricane Sandy to Linger For Months

By Jeff Mays | November 13, 2012 7:51am

KENSINGTON — Winsome Williams knew she'd have to act fast when the floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy began pouring into the Shore Parkway apartment she shares with her adult daughter, who has cerebral palsy and relies on an electric wheelchair to get around.

"I saw the water rising faster and faster and said, 'How am I going to get her out?'" Williams recalled.

Soon, firefighters were carrying a tearful Schevon, 32, up to a relative's third-floor apartment in the walk-up building where she lives.

Mother and daughter survived — but Schevon's $5,000 electric wheelchair didn't.

Neither did the $2,000 hospital bed that allowed her to sleep slightly elevated and not gag. Meanwhile, the fate of the $7,000 device known as a DynaVox that allowed Schevon to communicate by pressing a touch-screen was unclear.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, disabled New Yorkers say they have even greater obstacles to overcome to recover from the storm. The loss of handicap-accessible apartments and important equipment has left some in difficult situations.

"Disabled people are hidden away. It's not something that people think of unless they have immediate family who are disabled," said Edward Matthews, CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of New York City.

A lawsuit filed by disability-rights advocates charges that the city isn't effectively prepared to help 900,000 disabled New Yorkers in case of disaster.

The lawsuit, which a federal judge ruled could go forward with class-action status on Friday, claims the city does not have adequate plans in place to help the disabled population evacuate, find proper shelter or find electricity for medically necessary devices in the event of power failures.

City officials deny the accusations.

But for Schevon, the effects of the hurricane still linger weeks after the storm.

Now that she's on the third floor, Schevon has to be carried down the stairs by Williams' nephew to get her onto the bus that brings her to programs at United Cerebral Palsy, where she has been going since she was a teenager.

Williams' apartment was flooded, the refrigerator toppled, and it's unclear when she will be able to return home.

Once at her classes, the staff has to push Schevon around in a manual wheelchair while they wait to see who will pay for a replacement electric wheelchair. The electric wheelchair, with its tray, also helped Schevon feed herself.

"The motorized wheelchair helps her to be more independent," said Dina Bugayeva, Schevon's teacher at United Cerebral Palsy. "She can bring herself to all the activities and concentrate on her adult skills instead of worrying about how she'll get from place to place."

Matthews said his organization is in the process of helping clients like Schevon work through the maze of paperwork and apply for FEMA funds to replace essential equipment.

Strict Medicaid rules mean that disabled people like Schevon can't apply for certain pieces of equipment for a specified amount of time. For example, she only qualifies for a new communication assistance device like her DynaVox every five years.

Groups like his are working with the state to get those funding rules relaxed because of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy, Matthews said. They are also providing more practical help.

When the staff heard that the television Schevon used to watch her DVDs was damaged in the flood, they offered an old one they had in storage.

"I'm glad I have help," said Williams, a dental assistant and office manager. "I'm not sure I could handle this myself."

Amy Bittinger, director of Family Support Services for United Cerebral Palsy, said they have dozens of families in tough situations. One client is a disabled man trapped on the fifth floor of a building, where his family moved to avoid flooding. Unlike Schevon, who weighs just 90 pounds, no one is able to carry him down the stairs until the elevator is repaired.

Some adults without electric wheelchairs have been unable to return to classes.

The agency may also have to dig in to its own charitable funds to help clients who don't receive federal assistance. The agency had to move 41 clients to temporary shelters from its locations in lower Manhattan during the storm and is still waiting for full power at its offices on Maiden Lane.

Williams said she's happy that her daughter has been able to at least return to classes and begin the process of getting back the devices that make life easier.

On a recent afternoon, Schevon sat using her DynaVox to communicate with her mom about what she wanted to do for the upcoming weekend. The device seems to have dried out from any water damage it suffered. After not being charged for a week, it worked when plugged in.

Schevon kept poking the "mall" and "movie" buttons on the touch-screen, and Williams told her daughter that she heard her loud and clear. Cruising the mall in her electric wheelchair and looking at colorful outfits was one of Schevon's favorite leisure activities before Hurricane Sandy.

"We have our lives," Williams said. "Now, we just have to rebuild from here."