I can remember so clearly the day Hurricane Irene hit where I live in Central Pennsylvania. It was the year of very bad storms that started for my family with tornado-strength winds that knocked down some of our city’s most majestic trees that lined our streets, flattening cars and landing on houses. We got off easy — a big bough landed on my car, requiring a couple hundred dollars worth of body work.
That was in May, and it taught us to be afraid of storms. When Hurricane Irene came on the scene, we took note. We bought water, extra propane for the grill, canned everything and we watched as the eye approached New York City.
I’m a Facebook junkie as most of you may have noticed by now, and as I sat in my safe, dry brick house a state and a half away from landfall, I followed Susan Dooha, director of CIDNY, posting updates as she went from shelter to shelter in New York City to see if they were accessible. They were not. She posted photos of so-called ramps, and told of a situation where there actually was a ramp – but the door at the top of the ramp was locked.
Goosebumps still rise when I think about a wheelchair user who tried unsuccessfully to find shelter that night.
Hurricane Irene turned out to not be so bad. We got off easy — a tree fell on our backyard shed, not our house. Or was that from Tropical Storm Lee? Anyway, the very next year Hurricane Sandy showed us folks living in the Mid-Atlantic region how terrifying a hurricane could be.
And the shelters in New York City, our nation’s largest metropolis? Even with a year to fix its emergency planning, it was still as inaccessible as it was the year before.
But Dooha and her CIL and fellow advocates had filed a lawsuit over the shelters after Hurricane Irene, and that lawsuit was expanded into a class action lawsuit after Hurricane Sandy, and today that suit was decided in the favor of over 900,000 New Yorkers with disabilities who could not seek shelter from the storm.