Fati Vuillemey, who uses a motorized wheelchair, says she’s had numerous issues using Access-a-Ride to get around on Staten Island.
Living in her second-floor apartment, she could not imagine how, when an emergency arises, she would be able to even escape from her home.
“My living situation was an emergency, and it took two years to take care of. Every night, my anxiety is, when I lay down on the pillow, if there’s a fire, how am I able to escape? That’s not a quality of life,” said Vuillemey.
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 meant for residents with disabilities started to flood and she feared not being able to evacuate safely.
Both 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 issues with transportation, not only in an emergency, but to and from doctor’s appointments, work, and school.
They also highlighted a hole in emergency planning that the city has conducted in case of a flood event, 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 that the plans that New York City has in place for people with disabilities do not go far enough to ensure they can actually get above ground and to safety in a flood.
Many of their concerns focused on Access-a-Ride, the city’s expensive and unwieldy system that uses private drivers to provide public transportation for New Yorkers with disabilities or health conditions that keep them from using buses or subways.
The women said that between confusing routes, being forced to wait for rides to reach them on Staten Island from distant boroughs, and drivers who are not familiar with the borough at all, it’s hard to believe the system would be able to accommodate them during an emergency.
Carla Brodsky, a supervisor at SICIL, said that more often than not those waiting on Access-a-Ride or other modes of transportation have better luck relying on “the kindness of strangers.”
“How important it is to make people with disabilities a part of the conversation — who best can describe the barriers they face when dealing with Access-a-Ride and evacuation?” said Brodsky.
A wheelchair user boards an accessible van at the Access to Independence Transportation Expo in NYC, July 15, 2015.
New York City Department of Transportation
With experts predicting an especially active hurricane season, the women meeting at SCIL question whether Access-a-Ride or other public transportation services would be able to transport people with disabilities in outer boroughs to the accessible evacuation centers nearest to them.
“That’s the thing. Who wants to come to Staten Island? You’d get the thing saying ‘due to the storm, Access-a-Ride will not be having any driving,’” said Rosen of how emergency alerts could fail her.
Another member of the group, Wanda Lewis, echoed Rosen’s sentiment of frustration over lack of options on the island during a storm:
“You’d have to get on a boat.”
In the zone
New York City’s Office of Emergency Management has established “zones” throughout the five boroughs, with areas in zone one being at the most at risk for flooding and those in zone six at the least. On Staten Island, the coasts are almost entirely in zone one. Further inland, the island has five evacuation centers, with four of them — PS 80 Petrides Complex, Curtis High School, PS 58, IS 51 and the Jerome Parker Campus — accessible to people with disabilities.
That represents progress since THE CITY reported on disparities in 2019. But after a lawsuit brought by the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, or BCID, and other disability rights organizations following Hurricane Irene in 2011 finally led to an increase in the number of accessible evacuation centers, people with disabilities still need to find a way to get to them.
Joe Rappaport, the executive director of BCID, said that Irene pushed himself and other advocates to take action against the city in what was a dangerous, life-threatening situation for residents unable to get to evacuation centers in time. And, even when they did, they faced issues 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, the reliance on Access-a-Ride and its private drivers and dispatchers makes it hard to hold the city-subsidized operation to its promises to help out after a flood.
Ryan also expressed concerns about the size of the vehicles that Access-a-Ride uses to transport people with disabilities and in some cases, people with wheelchairs.
“If you have wheelchair users being evacuated, the cabs and car services, the transport people now, they can only really take one person at a time. One wheelchair user at a time. Not three, like the big vans can,” said Ryan.
She said that an incentive like extra pay for drivers during storms would make Access-a-Ride drivers and dispatchers more motivated to help out those with disabilities in flood zones throughout the city rather than leaving such people to formulate their own evacuation plan in the absence of sufficient support.
The OEM and the MTA plan to partner in a future flood where evacuation transportation is needed city-wide according to Nicole Payne, the director of transportation and infrastructure with the New York City Emergency Management Department.
They recommend that every New Yorker “knows their zone,” and make plans now to respond to an emergency.
“It’s really important that people heed the messaging, that they heed the advice to evacuate. So when evacuation orders are issued, New Yorkers can actually call 311 to be connected to support services for, specifically, again, for people with mobility issues, disabilities and functional needs, who need evacuation support,” said Payne.
The MTA asks that those who need Access-a-Ride services for evacuating their home call the agency at least 24-72 hours prior to a storm landing to reserve a trip. They offer service to evacuation centers across the five boroughs.
Even with the city’s precautions and plans, though, many Staten Island residents with disabilities feel they are being left to figure things out on their own, including Access-a-Ride already unreliable service and assistance getting out of apartments that are not on the first floor.
Access-a-Ride has seen an increase in on-time drivers on Staten Island, with on-time performance rising from 91% to 95% between September 2021 and April 2022.
That followed a major slump in on-time performance that led to hearings on the service’s shortcomings in September of 2021 when there was a 121% percent increase in no-show complaints. Members of the community voiced their frustrations with how unreliable the ride service had become.
But even with that incremental improvement, members of the SICIL group aren’t satisfied that they would be safe using the service to escape from a flood or other natural disaster.
Said Rosen, “The only way they’ll help you is if you already have a trip booked. I think I go to Petride’s School to evacuate. I don’t know these cross streets, I can’t guarantee that. Who do I call to get which entrance I have to come in from? They drop you off where the address is, but the only accessible entrance is elsewhere. How can I find that? How am I going to know that?”
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