Evacuating during Hurricane Sandy was a nightmare for the able-bodied, but many disabled New Yorkers felt a frightening level of despair and abandonment.
During disasters like Hurricane Sandy, "disabled people are really left to die. . . .It's really survival of the fittest," said Reginald Ragland, 59, who relies on a power wheelchair and is still living in a Middle Village nursing home while he waits for heat and hot water to be restored in his NYCHA apartment in Far Rockaway.
There's no official count of disabled people who died in the latest storm, but their stories are prominent in the news: John Paterno, 65, a legally blind man with cerebral palsy who was partially paralyzed, drowned in his Midland Beach home. Family members watched helplessly as Herminia St. John, 75, perished in her Gramercy Park apartment when the power outage stopped her oxygen machine.
While statistics are scant concerning disabled people, they are tabulated for the elderly, many of whom have mobility and sensory impairments: While people over the age of 60 made up only 15% of the population of New Orleans, they comprised 73 percent of the fatalities in Hurricane Katrina, according to the AARP. And at least 22 of the 43 confirmed Sandy deaths logged by the Medical Examiner were of people 65 or older.
No one looks at "the demographics of death," in regards to the disabled, in part because the definition of "disabled," is so mercurial, said Robert Gorski, Accessibility and Disability Issues Coordinator for the City of Pasadena. But it is common sense to know that anyone who can't see, or hear, or walk, or has a mental disorder is at double disadvantage during a disaster he said.
A spokesperson for the city said it has a special needs coordinator in the Office of Emergency Management and that feedback from advocacy groups is incorporated into planning efforts and an outreach program to inform New Yorkers during emergencies. But even some who got the warnings were caught in a bind.
Ragland did everything he could to obey Mayor Michael Bloomberg's directive to evacuate his Zone A residence before Sandy descended. He knew he might wind up dead if he didn't.
Ragland, who lives on the sixth floor of the Ocean Bay NYCHA complex in Far Rockaway, can hobble upright for a few steps, but relies on a power wheelchair due to a surgery that damaged his spinal nerves and causes muscle spasms. He also has a brain tumor that requires a complex medication regimen. The weekend before Sandy, NYCHA employees stopped by his apartment to give him fliers about the impending storm, but had no information on accessible shelters, he said.
When Ragland called 311, he said, "they tried to put me though to the Mayor's Office for Disabilities, but it was just a busy signal." He called FEMA and got a recording saying no one was available to take his call.
NYCHA said in a statement its staff made "a special effort to reach out to and assist those who are frail, impaired or mobility challenged, which number about 4,000 residents. . . . When there is an emergency (storm, outage), etc, we contact all the people on these lists of the impaired or mobility-impaired either by phone or in person. "
Unable to locate an accessible shelter, "I was really panicking," said Ragland, so he called 911 saying he felt sick and wanted to be taken to the hospital. But "ambulances aren't equipped (to transport) power wheelchairs. They said if I took my fold up one, it would probably get lost," so he reluctantly left both behind. Physicians at St. John's Hospital pronounced him well enough to leave on Monday and arranged a car service to take him to a shelter at York College, but he was turned away at the door. A doctor at the shelter "said they didn't have the means to take care of someone like me," recalled Ragland, who was taken back to the hospital in the middle of the storm. The St. John's staff called around until the Dry Harbor Nursing Home consented to take him in.
In many cases, individual citizens rallied to do the job that government did not.
Crippled in a shooting two years ago, 39-year-old Kenneth Martinez said he never imagined he might die by remaining in his Far Rockaway apartment during Sandy, but insisted he would have left if he were offered a place to stay that could accommodate his motorized wheelchair.
"I knew the storm was coming, but where was I going to go?" he said.
After the lights flickered out, Martinez managed to find a flashlight, but the tide that rushed into his home was ravenous. Filthy, freezing, turbulent water surged up his one leg, then gobbled up his torso. He managed to make a call to his partner, Michelle Medina, pleading for help, but his phone died in the middle of his description of the rising waters.
Medina, who was on Long Island, repeatedly dialed 911 but the three-digit number rang busy or went dead. Then she called 311. Operators there said they'd pass on the information to have Martinez evacuated. Medina also called relatives in NYC begging them to call 311, too, to stress how urgently Martinez needed help.
While his wheelchair remained in the living room, "the water floated me up to the kitchen." He struggled to stay afloat in the rising waters by windmilling his arms. Martinez began banging desperately on the ceiling - now within his reach - with his flashlight.
Hearing the knocks, his upstairs neighbor, Chris Francis, and two other men bashed out a window and rescued him..
"Those good guys upstairs risked their lives to save me," Martinez gratefully recounted. The trio carried Martinez upstairs to a vacant apartment, where he spent two nights swathed in insulation plastic to keep warm, before Medina could return to take him to her mother's house in Levittown. Medina and Martinez, who have two daughters, lost everything they owned. His new $27,000 prosthetic leg was swept away in the receding waters, but the loss most sorely felt for Martinez is his motorized wheelchair, which remains in the apartment but is unsalvageable. "I feel like I'm trapped," said Martinez, who is now facing a frustrating series of bureaucratic hurdles to replace it. . "That wheelchair was my legs."
Good Samaritans also helped save the life of Nick Dupree, 30, of TriBeCa, (pictured) who relies on a ventilator connected to his neck to breathe, and a number of other electricity-dependent devices, such as a lung-suction machine and feeding pump.
Dupree, and his partner, Alejandra Ospina, who is also in a wheelchair, are disability activists. They had stockpiled two extra batteries for Dupree's ventilator, but had no way to charge them. Shortly after the power failed and the land-line in their apartment went dead, Ospina and a friend managed to transmit a few texts indicating they needed help.
Their pleas quickly went viral. A Google document was created to set up shifts and arrange rides for Dupree's nurses. A group called Portlight Strategies came up with money to buy car and marine batteries for Dupree's medical equipment. About 25 friends and friends of friends formed an ad hoc fire brigade that trotted the batteries - which last about three hours - from their 12th floor apartment to the nearby Engine 7 Ladder 1 Fire House, where they recharged them and back up again. People streamed into their home bearing plates of food and medical supplies.
The support - much of it from strangers - was incredibly heartwarming, said Ospina. But, she added, "the government needs to step up so we don't have to put ourselves at the mercy of our community."
People with disabilities differ dramatically in what they would like the government to do to help them. But at a minimum, many said, there should be accessible shelters that are well-publicized to those who need them, along with accessible transportation that accommodates power chairs, and registries to help emergency personnel.
"Do the police know I'm here? Do the fire people?" wondered Milagros Franco, 36, of Gramercy Park, who is in a wheelchair and remained in her blacked-out home for three days with the help of a friend.
The problems that many disabled people encountered during Hurricane Sandy and last year's Hurricane Irene are being litigated in a lawsuit called Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled v. Bloomberg.
Earlier this month, a federal judge granted class-action status to the plaintiffs, who contend that the lack of a comprehensive plan for the evacuation of people with disabilities puts them at a disproportionate risk of injury and death.
Martha Calhoun, senior counsel for the NYC Law Department's General Litigation Department, said in a statement that city intends to vigorously defend itself.
"The City's Office of Emergency Management is a nationally recognized leader in emergency preparedness," she said. "The city's emergency plans have been carefully developed in order to effectively serve the needs of all New Yorkers, including individuals with disabilities."