Portland officials have put lives in danger and the city in legal jeopardy by failing to prepare to assist people with disabilities in the event of a disaster.
That’s according to an audit released on Wednesday.
“Emergency Management’s actions to educate and prepare people with disabilities for emergencies have fallen short,” city auditors wrote.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the city is barred from discriminating on the basis of disability and is required to provide equivalent access to emergency services to all residents. But auditors found city emergency management officials have failed to ensure Portland’s disabled population knows what to do in the event of a destructive disaster such as an earthquake or wildfire.
Auditors found the city does not keep a comprehensive list of who might need help with evacuation in an emergency due to a disability. While the city and Multnomah County keep a voluntary registry, the auditors found few people have signed up, painting “an incomplete picture” of just how many will need help. The city’s emergency plans also fail to establish procedures to ensure people with disabilities can evacuate in the event of an emergency and detail strategies to make sure that shelters will be accessible to people with disabilities.
On OPB’s Think Out Loud Wednesday, City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero said that while city staff has done some thinking around how to evacuate and transport people with disabilities, their plans likely won’t hold up in a real emergency.
“They are too vague, they’re too superficial for actual use, and in many cases they may be outdated,” Hull Caballero said.
Auditors also found emergency management professionals don’t regularly take input from people with disabilities when forming emergency plans and, instead, rely heavily on city staff.
“People with disabilities are just absent from the planning process,” Tom Stenson, deputy legal director for Disability Rights Oregon, said on Think Out Loud. “And there was almost no mention of people with disabilities or concepts around how they would be served. That was really distressing to see.”
The auditors wrote that these shortcomings could put the city at risk of a lawsuit for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The audit noted Denver, Los Angeles and New York have been sued for not considering the needs of people with disabilities when crafting an emergency management program.
Leaders for the city’s Bureau of Emergency Management said they strongly disagree that their current emergency preparations could lead to a lawsuit.
“This assertion reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of City response roles and protocols. Other statements, such as ‘the bureau did not request resources to address these issues’ are simply untrue,” Interim Director of Portland Bureau of Emergency Management Jonna Papaefthimiou and Mayor Ted Wheeler wrote in a letter responding to the audit. “We regret that the Auditor chose not to correct these inaccuracies.”
The emergency management leaders said the city has taken steps to incorporate the needs of people with disabilities in their emergency response, including creating COVID-19 videos in accessible formats and training emergency volunteers on how to assist people with disabilities. They noted that the bureau held a February training called “Responding to Persons with Disabilities” attended by 174 volunteers.
In a separate audit response, the interim director of the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights urged city officials to put more money and resources toward ensuring the city stops neglecting people with disabilities.
“There have been many decisions and people long before this audit who have failed to resource and make a priority this work which is why we find ourselves here today,” Koffi Dessou wrote. “We can no longer put this on the back burner.”