Evacuating during superstorm Sandy was a nightmare for the able-bodied, but many disabled New Yorkers said they felt a frightening level of despair and abandonment.
During disasters like Sandy, "disabled people are really left to die," said Reginald Ragland, 59, who relies on a power wheelchair and is living in a Middle Village, Queens, nursing home while he waits for heat and hot water to be restored in his public-housing apartment in Far Rockaway.
There's no official count of disabled people who died in the storm, but their stories are prominent in the news: John Paterno, 65, a legally blind man with cerebral palsy, who was partially paralyzed, drowned in his Midland Beach home. Family members watched helplessly as Herminia St. John, 75, perished in her Gramercy Park home when the power failure stopped her oxygen machine.
A spokeswoman for the city said it has a special-needs coordinator in the Office of Emergency Management and that feedback is incorporated into planning and an outreach program to inform the public in emergencies.
Ragland did everything he could to obey Mayor Michael Bloomberg's directive to evacuate his Zone A residence. He knew he might wind up dead if he didn't.
Ragland, who lives on the sixth floor of the Ocean Bay New York City Housing Authority complex in Far Rockaway, can hobble upright for a few steps, but relies on his power wheelchair due to a surgery that damaged his spinal nerves. He also has a brain tumor that requires a complex medication regimen. The weekend before Sandy, authority employees gave him fliers about the storm, but had no information on accessible shelters, he said.
When he called 311, "they tried to put me though to the Mayor's Office for Disabilities, but it was just a busy signal."
The Housing Authority said its staff made "a special effort to reach out to and assist those who are frail, impaired or mobility challenged, which number about 4,000 residents."
Disabled in a shooting two years ago, Kenneth Martinez, 39, said he never imagined he might die by remaining in his Far Rockaway apartment during Sandy, and would have left if he had a place to stay.
After the lights flickered out, Martinez managed to find a flashlight, but the tide that rushed into his home was ravenous. Filthy, freezing, turbulent water surged up his one leg, then his torso. He managed to call his partner, Michelle Medina, but his phone died. While his wheelchair remained in the living room, "the water floated me up to the kitchen," and he struggled to stay afloat. Martinez banged desperately on the ceiling.
His upstairs neighbor, Chris Francis, bashed out a window and splashed in with two other men. They carried Martinez up to a vacant apartment, where he spent two nights swathed in insulation plastic for warmth before Medina could take him to her mother's house in Levittown.
Good Samaritans also helped save the life of Nick Dupree, 30, of TriBeCa, who relies on a ventilator connected to his throat to breathe, and a number of other electrical devices, such as a lung-suction and feeding pump.
Shortly after the power failed and the land line in his apartment went dead, his partner, Alejandra Ospina, who also uses a wheelchair, and a friend sent a few texts indicating they needed help. Disability activists had two ventilator batteries on hand, but no way to charge them.
Their pleas quickly went viral. A Google document was created to set up shifts and arrange rides for Dupree's nurses, a group called Portlight Strategies came up with money to buy car and marine batteries, and about 25 strangers formed an ad- hoc fire brigade to haul batteries up and down 12 flights around the clock to be charged at the nearby Engine 7, Ladder 1 fire house.