Settlement requires NYC to overhaul disaster plan

A graphic of an Emergency Preparedness Checklist
NYC Revamps Emergency Preparedness Plans

Disability advocates and the New York City Law Department submitted papers in federal court September 25, laying out a comprehensive set of goals to bring the City’s emergency preparedness procedures into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We are very pleased that the City has collaborated with the disability community to develop this comprehensive plan, which includes access to the shelter system, accessible transportation, and assistance with evacuation from high rise buildings,” said Joan Peters, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, in a news release. “This agreement recognizes that all New Yorkers should benefit from the City’s disaster planning.”

The settlement stems from a lawsuit filed in September 2011, shortly after Tropic Storm Irene, by Disability Rights Advocates and Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, on behalf of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, the Center for Independence of the Disabled New York and two NYC residents.

The lawsuit’s numerous accusations of the city’s failure to accommodate people with disabilities in its emergency plans came to the forefront the next year in Hurricane Sandy, when tens of thousands of low-income people were stranded in the city’s high rise, public housing facilities for more than a week.

“Hurricane Sandy was as an incredible tragedy, but for the case, it was a treasure trove of evidence about how devastating the failure to plan for emergencies really is for New Yorkers,” Julia Pinover, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, told the New York Law Journal.

In a sweeping 109-page decision, published in November 2013, Judge Jesse Forman found that the City’s plans systematically violated the ADA, highlighting the city’s lack of a comprehensive evacuation plan for people with disabilities, inaccessible shelters and the city’s reliance on inaccessible transportation systems.

The settlement includes seven different Memoranda of Understanding, requiring the City to remedy the issues highlighted in Judge Furman’s decision.

By September 2017, the City must create a minimum of 60 accessible emergency shelters, spread throughout the five boroughs, capable of accommodating 120,000 people with disabilities. In addition to being architecturally accessible, the facilities must each contain backup power sources for storing emergency medications and accessible communication technologies, among other requirements.

In the short term, the City must immediately install eight to 14 facilities before the middle of October, with a capacity of 10,000 to 17,000 people, which is more than was needed in either Hurricane Sandy or Tropical Storm Irene, according to the Memorandum of Understanding.

By August 2017, the City must establish a Post-Emergency Canvassing Operation, in charge of rapidly surveying people after disasters to identify critical needs, such as food, water, electricity, medical care, and medical equipment. This option will be employed whenever an emergency impacts more than 5,000 households or lasts longer than 48 hours.

Also by August 2017, the City must inventory its accessible transportation vehicles and create a plan to effectively deploy these options during disaster scenarios. This will be done through collaboration with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Taxi and Limousine Commission and the New York City Housing Authority.

To oversee the implementation of these efforts, the City will hire a Disability and Access and Functional Needs Coordinator. A new Disability Community Advisory Panel will also be created to oversee the process.

Within a year, the City must also assemble a High Rise Building Evacuation Task Force and create a risk evacuation plan to be implemented over the following three years.

“This case was about saving the lives of New Yorkers with disabilities.” said Christine Chuana, senior staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, in the news release. “As a result of this agreement, New York City will now have one of the most integrated emergency plans in the country.”