NEW YORK (AP) — A judge cited disabled Superstorm Sandy victims stranded in high-rise towers to illustrate his conclusion that New York City violated laws designed to protect the disabled — about 11 percent of the city’s more than 8 million residents — as it created evacuation plans for emergencies ranging from storms to terrorist attacks.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman issued his written opinion Thursday, saying the city violated the American’s with Disabilities Act and the New York City Human Rights Law despite emergency efforts that he sometimes praised. He said the city’s emergency preparedness plans fail to ensure that people with disabilities can evacuate before or during an emergency and fail to provide accessible shelters.
Julia Pinover, the senior staff attorney for Disability Rights Advocates who argued the case, said the “ramifications nationwide are huge” if New York City sets the standard for helping the disabled during emergencies and inspires “municipalities country-wide to think through the sufficiency of their own plans.”
In a statement, Michael A. Cardozo, who heads the city’s law office, said lawyers were “continuing to review this decision and assess our next steps.”
He added: “While we are disappointed with the court’s conclusions, we are gratified it recognized that the city’s extensive planning is impressive, and the efforts and valor of those responding to emergencies have been ‘extraordinary.’ Planning for the needs of people with disabilities has always been and remains a priority for the city.”
Furman questioned the city’s planning priorities in his 119-page ruling, noting that the Special Needs Coordinator within the city’s Office of Emergency Management has no staff and is on the lowest rung of the office’s organizational chart. And he said there was no evidence that the police or fire departments employ anyone to ensure the departments’ emergency plans and policies accommodate the disabled.
His ruling came in a class-action lawsuit brought by two nonprofit groups — the Center for the Independence of the Disabled and the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled — and two disabled individuals.
He wrote that evacuation plans intended to apply to all residents “plainly — and unlawfully — fail to take into account the special needs of people with disabilities.”
“Hurricane Sandy dramatically demonstrated the consequences of this failure. Plaintiffs provided substantial evidence that people with disabilities … remained trapped in high-rise buildings for days after the storm,” he said.
Furman said there was no evidence the city intentionally discriminated against people with disabilities. But he said that laws protecting the disabled “seek to prevent not only intentional discrimination against people with disabilities, but also — indeed, primarily — discrimination that results from ‘benign neglect.’”