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Disaster Prep for the Disabled Still Lacking After Sandy, Advocates Say

By Jeff Mays | October 29, 2013 12:58pm
 On the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, disability advocates say much more needs to be done to prepare the city to properly care for disabled New Yorkers in the wake of the next catastrophe. A class action lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Advocates accuses the city of not being prepared to care for disabled New Yorkers during emergency situations.
Disabled Need Help after Hurricane Sandy
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KENSINGTON — Schevon Williams is once again motoring independently around the hallways of her day program at United Cerebral Palsy of New York City thanks to her new $17,000 motorized wheelchair.

Her old one was destroyed when the Gravesend apartment she shares with her mother was flooded by Hurricane Sandy.

After three months of having to be carried down from the third floor of her apartment building because repairs were being made to her first floor unit, Schevon, 33, who has cerebral palsy, is back sleeping in her new $3,000 hospital bed.

Should another hurricane barrel toward their Brooklyn neighborhood, the local firehouse now has Schevon's name on a priority evacuation list.  "It's a little piece of mind," said Schevon's mother, Winsome Williams, a dental technician. "She was traumatized when the water started rushing in. She started to panic."

A year after Hurricane Sandy, Williams says things are back to normal for her and her daughter thanks to the efforts of United Cerebral Palsy of New York to fast-track the government funding needed to buy Schevon all the supplies destroyed by the storm.

"I was able to get all of my equipment replaced," Schevon said using a new electronic device that generates speech.

But advocates say much more needs to be done to prepare the city to properly care for disabled New Yorkers in case of the next potential catastrophe.

A class action lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Advocates accuses the city of not being prepared to care for disabled New Yorkers during emergency situations. More than 118,000 disabled people lived within evacuation Zone A when Sandy hit. The zones have since been expanded.

The city lacks everything from a high-rise evacuation plan to an accessible transportation system and shelters equipped to handle specialized equipment such as feeding pumps or oxygen, said Rebecca Williford, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates. The city also isn't sure of which shelters are accessible to the disabled, she added.

Kenneth Martinez, a former resident of Far Rockaway who uses a wheelchair because of a leg amputation and spinal injury, said the buses the city were using to evacuate people were too crowded to fit his wheelchair.

Martinez waited for additional buses but was forced back home because the wind and rain could have destroyed his wheelchair. Martinez repeatedly called 311 and 911 for help to evacuate, but he says no one came.

"When the storm surge happened, sea water totally flooded my first-floor apartment," Martinez said. "The water rose around me until I was floating up, with my head nearly touching the ceiling. I started pounding on the ceiling. I thought I would die."

Luckily for Martinez, his neighbors were able to break a window and pull him up to the second story apartment.

The Department of Justice, which is responsible for enforcing the Americans with Disability Act, recently issued a statement of support asking the court to rule against the city.

"We are not aware of any improvements over the last year and that really concerns us," Williford said.

City officials strongly disagree with the lawsuit, saying they take "tremendous care to incorporate the needs of people with disabilities into every stage of its emergency planning," according to a statement by Martha Calhoun, senior counsel for the city's Law Department.

They have worked to help the disabled during emergencies by being the first in the country to establish the position of special needs coordinator within its Office of Emergency Management. ASL interpretation services are also available upon request at evacuation centers and shelters and during all mayoral press conferences.

In addition to doing things like increasing its emergency supplies stockpile and developing ways to make prescription medicines more readily available, after Hurricane Sandy the city began developing plans to provide support for the disabled and elderly in their homes. The city is also working to improve the level of accessibility within its shelters and evacuation centers.

"After Sandy, we engaged in a rigorous and expedited process to further enhance our existing programs for all New Yorkers, including, of course, people with disabilities," Calhoun said.

United Cerebral Palsy of New York is not involved in the lawsuit and say they have seen the city take steps including facilitating greater coordination between themselves and groups that care for the disabled through the Office of Emergency Management.

Michael Matrone, director of operations for program support for United Cerebral Palsy of New York, said the storm taught them that the city's shelter system was ill-equipped to handle the special needs of their residents.

Some of their clients had to be moved to non-flood zones. That required special vehicles, but gas was scarce in the days after Hurricane Sandy hit.

"After the storm, we now make sure our vehicles are fueled at all times," Matrone said.

The agency is also looking to purchase emergency communications software that would allow them to send mass texts. They also want to increase the number of sites with emergency generators and create a data recovery center that would allow them to access critical medical information about their clients in an emergency.

The agency is even planning a cook-off using only food in emergency kits to see how well staff could manage to keep clients fed during an actual emergency.

"Should another storm come our way we are more prepared," said Matrone.

Winsome Williams said she realizes the outcome could have been a lot worse for her and her daughter and has tried to put Hurricane Sandy behind them.

"You can't live your life thinking another disaster will happen," she said. "You have to let it go, but not forget it."