Court rules that NYC emergency plans violate the ADA

Photo of an evacuation route sign against a blue sky.
NYC Not Prepared

In a sweeping 109-page decision, a federal court ruled November 7 that New York City’s emergency preparedness procedures fail to take special accommodations into account for the city’s estimated 900,000 residents with disabilities.

“This mountain of evidence and argument confirms that planning for, and responding to, emergencies and disasters is a Herculean task, and that, in many — perhaps most — respects, the City has done an outstanding job,” the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York wrote in the opinion. “But it also reveals that while the City’s emergency preparedness program adequately accommodates the needs of people with disabilities in some respects, it fails to do so in others.

“Most significantly, 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.”

During Hurricane Sandy, tens of thousands of people were stranded without power in high-rise buildings for more than a week, most prominently in the city’s many public housing facilities, the vast majority of which lie in coastal flooding zones.

At bench trial in March, where more than 35 witnesses testified, the NYC Fire Department testified that the city lacks any specific plans for helping people evacuate these buildings. Instead, it relied on the assumption that most people can leave without assistance, even though city buildings are not required to maintain emergency evacuation devices.

Similarly, the city’s emergency preparedness relies heavily on public transportation to help people evacuate, even though just 20 percent of the city’s subways meet ADA accessibility standards. That figure is less than 2 percent for the city’s taxi fleet and the paratransit system lacks an emergency plan, the court found.

“The City has no meaningful plan whatsoever to ensure sufficient accessible transportation to evacuate people with disabilities during an emergency,” the court stated.

For people who can evacuate, the city’s 500 shelters, most of which are department of education buildings, pose myriad new roadblocks. Many of these facilities fall far sort of ADA architectural standards, for everything from the entrances to the bathrooms.

At all stages of the NYC emergency preparedness plan, the court found significant communication problems that would inhibit access for people who are blind or visually impaired, or deaf or hard of hearing.

“The Court’s ruling today is a landmark victory for New York City’s residents with disabilities,” said Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates, in a news release. “For the first time, they will be provided with an equal chance of survival during disasters. No person should be left behind to suffer or die during emergencies because of the incompetence of the City’s bureaucracy.”

The lawsuit was filed in September 2011, when the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled and two individuals sued the city shortly after Hurricane Irene. They were represented by Disability Rights Advocates, who previously won a similar lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, resulting in a first-of-its-kind finding that the city’s emergency preparedness plan violated the ADA.