Federal Judge Jesse Furman ruled last week that the city violated the rights of its disabled population, about 900,000 individuals, by failing to plan adequately for their evacuation in an emergency.
If this sounds like piling on -- in a town that's seen more than its share of superhuman heroism amid catastrophe -- it's not. The city must get busy as soon as possible on an evacuation plan that can pass court muster.
The judge credited the city for its admirable efforts to protect lives in emergencies like hurricanes or terrorism strikes. But he also made it clear that in a packed coastal city like New York -- built vertically and with heavy dependence on mass transit -- officials have failed to do enough to ensure the safety of people with disabilities.
Subways and high-rise staircases, for example, are off limits to many who can't get around easily. So plans that rely on them in emergency evacuations often prove worthless for people with disabilities. Any credible plan must find other ways to move everyone to safety.
Consider the case of Kenneth Martinez, a resident of Far Rockaway when Superstorm Sandy struck.
Martinez uses a motorized wheelchair, and the day before the storm, police directed him to buses that were waiting to take residents to shelters. But the buses were too crowded for him to board in his wheelchair.
Martinez went home. The next day he called 311 and asked to be evacuated. Nobody came, and then the full force of Sandy hit. As water gushed into his first-floor apartment, he managed to stay afloat -- finally banging frantically on his ceiling. He was rescued by his upstairs neighbor and two other men.
Throughout the city, similar horror stories unfolded. This is not how a great metropolis handles emergencies, especially when about 11 percent of its residents qualify as disabled. The case against the city was filed in 2011 after Irene, but focused sharply on events surrounding Sandy.
The judge made it clear that if the plaintiffs and the city fail to reach an agreement soon, he'd impose remedies of his own. Time for City Hall to scramble.