New Yorkers with disabilities won accessible evacuation centers. Good luck getting there on Staten Island.

Fati Vuillemey, who uses a motorized wheelchair, says she has had many problems using Access-a-Ride to get around Staten Island.

Living in her second-floor apartment, she could not imagine how, in an emergency, she could even escape from her home.

“My life situation was an emergency, and it took two years to deal with it. Every night my anxiety is, when I lay on the pillow, if there is a fire, how can I escape? It’s not a quality of life,” Vuillemey said.

Cheri Rosen, who also uses a motorized wheelchair, recalled a time during Hurricane Sandy when cars and vans that were part of a fleet of emergency vehicles for residents with disabilities began flooding and she feared she could not evacuate safely.

The two women were part of a group of people with disabilities who met at the Staten Island Center for Independent Living, or SCIL, on a recent Tuesday afternoon to share their stories about transportation issues, not just emergencies , but also to and from the doctor. appointments, work and school.

They also pointed to a gap in the emergency planning the city conducted for flooding and a lack of consideration for people with disabilities trying to get out of their homes and to accessible evacuation centers on Staten Island.

The women said the plans New York City has in place for people with disabilities don’t go far enough to ensure they can actually get out of the ground and to safety in the event of a flood.

Many of their concerns centered on Access-a-Ride, the city’s expensive and unwieldy system that uses private drivers to provide public transportation to New Yorkers with disabilities or medical conditions that prevent them from using buses or subways.

The women said that between confusing routes, having to wait for rides to join them on Staten Island from distant boroughs, and drivers who don’t know the borough at all, it’s hard to believe that the system would be able to accommodate them during an emergency.

Carla Brodsky, a supervisor at SICIL, said more often than not, those waiting on Access-a-Ride or other modes of transportation have better luck relying on “the friendliness of strangers.”

“How important is it to bring people with disabilities into the conversation – who can best describe the barriers they face when dealing with Access-a-Ride and evacuation? Brodsky said.

A wheelchair user boards an accessible van at the Access to Independence Transportation Expo in New York, July 15, 2015.

New York City Department of Transportation

Experts predicting a particular situation active hurricane seasonthe women gathered at SCIL wonder if Access-a-Ride or other public transit services would be able to transport people with disabilities from outlying boroughs to the accessible evacuation centers closest to them.

“That’s the thing. Who wants to come to Staten Island? You’d get the thing that said ‘due to the storm, Access-a-Ride won’t have any rides,'” Rosen said of how the emergency alerts could fail him.

Fellow band member Wanda Lewis echoed Rosen’s sense of frustration with the lack of options on the island during a storm:

“You would have to get on a boat.”

In the zone

The New York City Office of Emergency Management has established “zones” in all five boroughs, with areas in zone one being most at risk of flooding and those in zone six at least. In Staten Island, the coasts are almost entirely in zone one. Further inland, the island has five evacuation centers, four of which – PS 80 Petrides Complex, Curtis High School, PS 58, IS 51 and Jerome Parker Campus – are handicap accessible.

This represents progress since THE CITY reported disparities in 2019. But after a trial brought by the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, or BCID, and other disability rights organizations in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011 eventually led to an increase in the number of accessible evacuation centers , people with disabilities still have to find a way to get there .

BCID executive director Joe Rappaport said Irene pushed herself and other advocates to take action against the city in what was a dangerous and life-threatening situation for residents unable to get to evacuation centers in time. And, even when they did, they ran into problems in buildings that were supposed to be accessible.

Jean Ryan, who is part of a non-profit advocacy group called Disabled in Action and uses a wheelchair, said that even with more accessible evacuation centers, reliance on Access-a-Ride and its private drivers and dispatchers makes it difficult to keep the city-subsidized operation on its promises to help after a flood.

Ryan also expressed concerns about the size of vehicles used by Access-a-Ride to transport people with disabilities and, in some cases, people in wheelchairs.

“If you have wheelchair users who are evacuated, taxis and car services, transporters now, they can really only take one person at a time. One wheelchair user at a time. Not three, like big vans can,” Ryan said.

She said an incentive such as extra pay for drivers during storms would encourage Access-a-Ride drivers and dispatchers to help people with disabilities in flood-prone areas of the city rather than leaving those people formulate their own escape plan in the absence. sufficient support.

Redesigned planning

The OEM and MTA plan to partner in a future flood where evacuation transportation is needed throughout the city, according to Nicole Payne, director of transportation and infrastructure for the New York City Department of Emergency Management. .

They recommend that every New Yorker “know your zone” and make plans now to respond to an emergency.

“It’s really important that people heed the messages, that they heed the evacuation advice. So when evacuation orders are issued, New Yorkers can actually call 311 to be connected to assistance services, especially, again, for people with mobility issues, disabilities and functional needs, who need evacuation assistance,” Payne said.

The MTA is asking those who need Access-a-Ride services to evacuate their homes to call the agency at least 24 to 72 hours before a storm lands to book a trip. They offer the service to the evacuation centers in the five boroughs.

Even with the city’s precautions and maps, however, many Staten Island residents with disabilities feel like they’re on their own, including the already unreliable Access-a-Ride service and assistance with move out of apartments that are not on the first floor.

Access-a-Ride has seen an increase on-time drivers in Staten Island, with on-time performance increasing from 91% to 95% between September 2021 and April 2022.

This follows a significant drop in punctuality that led to service shortcomings hearings in September 2021, when there was a 121% increase in no-show complaints. Community members have expressed frustration with the unreliability of transportation service.

But even with this incremental improvement, SICIL Group members aren’t confident they’d be safe using the service to escape a flood or other natural disaster.

Said Rosen, “The only way they’ll help you is if you’ve already booked a trip. I think I’m going to Petrides School to bug out. I don’t know those side streets, I can’t guarantee that. .Who do I call to find out which entrance I need to come in. They drop you off where the address is, but the only accessible entrance is somewhere else. How do I find that? How will I find out?

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