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A federal judge says New York City's emergency plans violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, leaving almost 900,000 city residents in danger. The ruling comes a year after Superstorm Sandy hit the city, stranding many for days in darkened buildings. Experts say the case could impact local governments across the country. WNYC's Robert Lewis reports.
ROBERT LEWIS, BYLINE: Shortly before Sandy hit the East Coast last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed a nervous city.
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MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The most important thing I can say right now is if you live in Zone A, you must evacuate. We have a plan to keep you and New Yorkers safe. If you follow that plan, we'll get through this storm just fine.
LEWIS: But that plan didn't work for everyone. In the chaotic days after the storm, stories emerged of people trapped in darkened high-rises, struggling to survive.
MELBA TORRES: This is my room.
LEWIS: Melba Torres has cerebral palsy. She maneuvers her 500-pound battery-powered wheelchair through her small New York City Housing Authority apartment. She's on the Lower East Side in what was Zone A, the area most at risk of flooding in a big storm. She says she got an evacuation notice less than three hours before her building shut down, and she didn't have time to line up transportation that could take her wheelchair.
TORRES: We were still here. The elevators had been shut down. So at that point, I was thinking, oh, dear God, how am I going to come down? I live on the eighth floor, and I was really afraid.
LEWIS: Not long after, the power went out, leaving Torres and her aide in darkness.
TORRES: Total fear came over me, and I just cried. I just cried because I felt trapped.
LEWIS: She was stuck there for six days. Torres ended up being part of a federal lawsuit alleging New York City's emergency plans violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that guarantees people with disabilities equal access to programs and services.
On Thursday, Judge Jesse Furman ruled against New York. He praised the city for the effort it puts into emergency preparedness, but he wrote that the city plans are inadequate to ensure people with disabilities are able to evacuate. He also found shelters are inaccessible.
Susan Dooha is the executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, one of the plaintiffs in the case. She says her clients are thrilled.
SUSAN DOOHA: The next time there's an emergency, they have a shot of surviving. They have a shot at being included. They have a shot of mattering in the city of New York.
LEWIS: Martha Calhoun is an attorney with the city of New York. She worked on the case. Calhoun says the city is still reviewing the ruling and figuring out what it will mean.
MARTHA CALHOUN: Obviously, we're disappointed with some of the court's conclusions. But we're also very gratified that Judge Furman recognized the significant challenges of emergency planning in this city and that he praised the extensive planning that the city does do.
LEWIS: It appears to be only the third lawsuit of its kind nationwide and only the first to go to trial. The nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates has been behind all of the cases.
Sam Bagenstos teaches disability law at the University of Michigan Law School. He said people across the country were watching the New York case closely.
SAM BAGENSTOS: I think it's a very big deal. I mean, I think these are really life and death issues for people with disabilities. And this is a case that establishes the principle that people with disabilities, like everybody else, have to be fully accounted for in emergency preparedness actions.
LEWIS: The issues raised in the lawsuit are not new. The National Council on Disability, which is a federal agency, has been warning since before Hurricane Katrina that local governments aren't ready to protect people with disabilities during emergencies.
Bryan Koon is in charge of emergency management for the state of Florida and sits on the board of the National Emergency Management Association. He says emergency planning for people with disabilities can be hard, especially in a dense city like New York.
BRYAN KOON: It's extremely complicated and difficult, so they may have to spend a great deal of time and money on making sure that they do get the plans up to what the judge's ruling required them to do.
LEWIS: Koon added that New York City is widely respected for its ability to handle a disaster. So if the city could lose such a lawsuit, then emergency planners across the country are probably going back to look at their own plans. For NPR News, I'm Robert Lewis in New York.
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