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Oakland sued for not including disabled people in disaster plannning
Landmark lawsuit filed against the City of Oakland for failure to include people with disabilities in its disaster planning
A lawsuit was filed today against the City of Oakland to address the City’s failure to adequately plan to meet the mass care and shelter needs of people with disabilities in an emergency. The suit highlights a national problem, and one made especially evident during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, during which people with disabilities had their lives put at risk because of a lack of planning for this vulnerable population. The case is the first of its kind in the country.
Plaintiffs – the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers (“CFILC”), Californians for Disability Rights, Inc. (“CDR”), and Marian Gray (an Oakland taxpayer) – charge that the City of Oakland has violated federal and state civil rights laws designed to provide people with disabilities equal access to emergency shelter services. The City’s violations include:
• The failure to conduct adequate surveys of the accessibility of potential shelter sites, resulting in a list that contains many inaccessible shelters;
• The failure to revise the City’s Mass Care and Shelter Plan from the 1980s to address the needs of men, women, and children with disabilities;
• The failure to make arrangements to provide prescriptions, medical supplies and equipment, or accessible transportation to people with disabilities in an emergency.
Plaintiffs are represented by Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit law firm headquartered in Berkeley, California, that specializes in high-impact cases on behalf of people with disabilities.
“Oakland’s lack of accessible shelters means that people with disabilities must deal with a bureaucratic disaster at the same time as we try to survive a natural disaster,” says Teresa Favuzzi, Executive Director of the California Foundation of Independent Living Centers, an organizational Plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Marian Gray, an individual Plaintiff, is all too familiar with this reality. “Oakland is leaving me in the dark as to whether there are any shelters that will be able to meet my needs. I am afraid I will be turned away at the door when they see my wheelchair and ventilator. I cannot afford to wait until a disaster strikes to find out.”
The City of Oakland is particularly disaster prone and susceptible to a variety of emergencies, including earthquakes, fires, landslides, and terrorist attacks. Since 1983, the City of Oakland has experienced eight Presidential-declared disasters, including the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm, the 1997 El Nino winter storms, and the 1998 La Nina winter storms. During many of these disasters, the homes of Oakland residents were destroyed, requiring mass evacuations and the provision of emergency shelter services. For instance, following the Loma Prieta earthquake, more than 12,000 Oakland residents were left homeless and more than 18,000 homes were damaged. Following the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed. United States Geological Survey scientists have concluded that there is a 62% probability of one or more major earthquakes (magnitude 6.7 or greater) striking the Bay Area between the years 2003 and 2032.
Jennifer Weiser Bezoza, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, explains the urgency of the situation: “The threat of a major disaster is real. The City of Oakland has been dragging its feet for years. This is a problem that cannot be put on the back burner. Each day that Oakland waits, more lives are put at risk.”
The 2000 United States Census estimated that 23% of Oakland’s population is disabled. As such, over 84,000 Oakland residents may not receive the emergency shelter services they need during an emergency. “Unless Oakland begins planning immediately, people with disabilities will be unnecessarily segregated in medical facilities, which should be reserved for the sick and injured,” says Laura Williams, President of Californians for Disability Rights, Inc., one of the organizational Plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs are seeking only injunctive relief. “Although the City of Oakland could be liable for damages, Plaintiffs are not pursuing them in this lawsuit. Our focus is on fixing a serious problem and not leaving people with disabilities to fend for themselves in a disaster,” explains Sid Wolinsky, Director of Litigation at Disability Rights Advocates, and an attorney representing the Plaintiffs.