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“Access Issues” at Some Hurricane Irene Evacuation Shelters

August 29, 2011

NEW YORK - Emergency evacuation decisions are tougher for people with disabilities because they need to be sure they are fleeing to shelters that they can get in and out of and use. In the wake of Hurricane Irene, there are allegations today that the City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) fell short on promises that people being ordered out of "Zone A" would be evacuated to "accessible shelters."

Susan Dooah, executive director of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled New York (CIDNY), says she surveyed six shelters for people from "Zone A." Dooah says that, despite promises from the city, she found numerous accessibility issues both inside and outside the evacuation shelters.

"Whether people using wheelchairs or scooters would be able to get in, in the event of an emergency, and once they're there, will they have to sit up all night in a wheelchair, will they be able to go into the bathrooms?"

An OEM representative said: "Evacuees with disabilities have been fully accommodated and placed at sites with accessibility" and could not comment further without knowing more details. Dooha says OEM already has that information, because, she says, she sent them a detailed list of problems as the hurricane approached on Saturday.

Dooha says the city-wide transit shutdown at noon Saturday closed the window on evacuation for some New Yorkers with disabilities.

"The transportation that was running after that time was inaccessible; the school buses they were using, the taxis, the vans, did not have lifts and would not be able to help people evacuate."

Dooah says her group (CIDNY) has been working with OEM on emergency shelter access issues since the attacks of 9/11, and she is frustrated with their performance during Hurricane Irene.

"There's a lot to do to get from the intention that these issues be addressed to the reality that they are; and right between that intention and that reality is room for a lot of very real harm to people who are in crisis and are left without somewhere to turn."

Dooah credited shelter volunteers for doing the very best they could under difficult circumstances, but she also noted that they did not appear to have been briefed on disabilities issues.

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - NY