Your mother is on the 17th floor of a high-rise on 13th Street and First Avenue. She depends on a machine-operated oxygen tank to sleep. You, her son or daughter, helped her set this up next to the nightstand in her bedroom. You know she can’t walk very far, let alone climb out of her wheelchair, with or without your help, with this heavy piece of equipment in tow and slide down the 16 floors to an evacuation site at the elementary school nearby. Yet it’s 5:30 PM, and she’s calling you after getting a call from New York City telling her it’s time to evacuate.
This call comes after you took a day off from work, coordinating with your brother or sister to come in from your suburban home to make sure she had enough food, water, batteries, and candles to endure the storm. It’s not that you don’t love your mom. Heck, she could help play with your children (her grandchildren) while you all endure the storm. And her best friend will go out of her way to put your mother up in her own apartment — but for people with disabilities, it’s too hard to find that special taxi that could take her to either her son’s house or her best friend’s apartment.
If this isn’t a nightmare, I don’t know what is. Almost a million people faced this scenario during Hurricane Irene in 2011. Presumably the numbers hit over a million for Hurricane Sandy — and that’s before you throw the many, many people in hospitals into the evacuation disaster mix.
The terrible part about this scenario is not that it doesn’t make a great disaster movie, or that it wouldn’t make the roster of indie films or social-justice documentaries that hit the Sundance film festival each year. This is a tough topic to turn into a good narrative because it’s too predictable. There is little room for a sudden plot shift that wouldn’t make the narrative either silly and unrealistic or corny. And the scenario outlined above is a grandmother, not someone who has had a disability since their late childhood or early twenties and might not have much of a nuclear family in the area.
But all this said, there is one place the narrative did turn. And that’s in the courtroom drama that happened late last week, with help from the Obama Justice Department. Judge Jesse Furman ruled in Manhattan federal court that the city had an obligation to protect those who suffered unnecessarily during Hurricane Irene. The Obama Justice Department, to its credit, gave them the right to sue. And sue they did, winning a judgment that the city discriminated against these 900,000 New Yorkers.
Well, Mayor Bill (de Blasio) will get his first test as he withstands the hurricane blast of another class-action lawsuit, this time over the ADAAA violations under Hurricane Sandy. What Judge Furman ruled in terms of “benign neglect” for Irene sounds too generous here.
It looks like New York City might be sued into reform. So, here’s hoping that our incoming mayor will draw up a real evacuation plan for what will surely be over a million New Yorkers with disabilities. Despite the threat of this lawsuit in federal court, and the knowledge quite a while ago that the Justice Department enforcing the ADAAA would not tolerate this, Mayor Bloomberg’s post-Sandy evacuation plans still did not include a good plan for all those with disabilities. That must change immediately.