The city is arguing that disabled individuals have a responsibility to plan wisely for disasters and it's not just up to government to keep them safe. City lawyer Martha Calhoun made that argument at the start of a trial on whether disabled people are needlessly suffering during disasters because the city fails to account for their special needs.
In the first day of testimony in a suit by disabled rights activists pressing for a comprehensive disaster plan, Joyce Delarosa, a 55-year-old woman who lives on 2nd Avenue near 26th street, testified in court that she called 311 and 911 roughly 20 times during Sandy to try to find a way to get oxygen. A power outage had left her equipment unusable.
The disabled women suffers from what's known as "brittle bone disease" and has only one functioning lung that's restricted because of a deformity. She said about half the time she was either disconnected or put on hold for 15 to 20 minutes. Delarosa said the city's Emergency Medical Services told her they couldn't deliver her oxygen and could only pick her up if she needed to be taken to a hospital.
According to the disabled woman's testimony she had to wait three days for assistance until she was in pain and having trouble breathing. Delarosa said she also had to lie to EMS and tell them that her wheelchair bound daughter, who suffers from her same condition, also needed to go to the hospital or else they would not have agreed to bring her down from their building that had lost power.
In her opening statement city lawyer Calhoun said responding to an emergency was a shared responsibility between government, non-profits and individuals. She reiterated that individuals had a responsibility to follow rules and also had the ability to make their own choices. The lawyer said during Sandy over 100 city and state agencies, branches of the military and non-profits worked to help all New Yorkers including the disabled.
But Shawna Parks, an attorney for the disabled, argued that there was no specific plan for people with impairments. She gave examples of shelters that lacked special cots, refrigerators for medication and things like crutches and walkers. Parks did not challenge that individual planning was important but said the city can't just punt and expect everyone to take care of themselves.
During cross examination Calhoun asked Delarosa whether she had ever thought to prepare for a possible power outage by purchasing a back up oxygen machine that ran on batteries. Delarosa said she hadn't and eventually said she didn't believe such a thing existed. Calhoun also questioned Delarosa about whether she could have evacuated to a shelter roughly 10 blocks away. Delarosa said it wasn't clear whether the shelter had a wheelchair accessible entrance and bathroom.
There's no jury in the case - the trial will be decided by Judge Jesse M. Furman. It's expected to last two weeks.