Think Out Loud

Portland fails to provide emergency services to people living with disabilities, according to a new audit

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Dec. 8, 2021 7:13 p.m. Updated: Dec. 15, 2021 11:45 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Dec. 8

The Portland auditor has found that the city is unprepared to assist people with disabilities during emergencies. The auditor’s office used the city’s response during the pandemic as a template for examining whether emergency programs and services are accessible to people with disabilities. Portland auditor Mary Hull Caballero explains the results, and Tom Stenson, deputy legal director for Disability Rights Oregon, provides his organization’s perspective.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The City of Portland is not prepared to meet the needs of people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, much less more physically destructive emergencies like an earthquake or a wildfire. That is the main finding from a new Audit released this morning by the Portland Auditor. The office also reported broader citywide non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mary Hull Caballero is Portland’s elected auditor. She joins us now to talk about these two reports, Thomas Stenson joins us as well. He is the Deputy Legal Director for Disability Rights Oregon. Good to have both of you back on Think Out Loud.

Mary Hull Caballero: Thank you for having me.

Thomas Stenson: Thank you for having us.

Miller: Mary Hull Caballero, first. What does the Americans with Disabilities Act require of governments like the City of Portland in terms of emergency services?

Caballero: The city is obligated under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act to provide equal access to services for people with disabilities including emergency services during a large scale emergency, and it has broad implications for all government services provided by the city. And we looked specifically in terms of the city’s delivery and preparation during an emergency and used the context of the pandemic to evaluate where we were with that.

Miller: You note that the U. S. Department of Justice gives guidance to local governments specifically about emergency preparedness and response and education and planning. What are examples of what they say the City of Portland, and every city, needs to do?

Caballero: The ‘Best Practices Toolkit for State and Local Governments’ is the criteria that we use to evaluate the city’s preparedness and what that tool kit does is it walks you through the building blocks that a city would need to be able to deliver services to people with disabilities. For example, they may need tailored notifications; they would need to know where they are; you would need to know do they need evacuation assistance, what transportation is available to them in the event of an emergency – and to do that, you need to engage disability organizations and people with a variety of needs, so that you deeply understand how you have to deliver services to help them when the emergency occurs. And we found that those building blocks were not in place in the City of Portland. We also found that our emergency plans are outdated and that they contain critical gaps in some of these very important areas.

Miller: One of the issues you point to is that in order for a city to be able to plan for the emergency needs of people with disabilities, emergency managers have to understand what those needs are and who those people are. The City and County does have a registry but you write this: ‘As currently operated, the registry creates an illusion of preparedness that may do more harm than good.’ What do you mean?

Caballero: There is a registry but it requires people to voluntarily submit their names and needs to that registry and it’s our understanding that the registry is so lacking in credibility that the emergency planners don’t even use it for planning purposes, and that’s one of the recommendations we’ve made, is for there to be an assessment of the usefulness of that tool for this purpose and if it’s not acceptable and it’s not working, then something needs to replace that, instead of having people think that there’s something useful for their needs in the times of an emergency, and then find out when the time comes that it is not useful.

Miller: One of the ways that residents of a city interact most with an Office of Emergency Communication is getting alerts. It’s something that has sort of ramped up citywide and statewide in recent years. What issues did you find in terms of alerts and messaging, specifically with respect to people with disabilities?

Caballero: The public alert system is kind of a general system for alerts. You could use it, I could use it. You can sign up for that as well, to get those. What we’re talking about in this context is a population of people who need more than that. And they may have some disabilities that prevent them from hearing an alert, from reading an alert, and so the system has to be set up specifically to make sure that it is meeting the needs of people with disabilities You also have to have monitoring as part of your preparedness and you have to understand – are those things working when you test them, are you going back to your population of people with disabilities and asking them, ‘What’s working, what’s not working,’ and ensuring that they’re getting the messages.

Miller:  You do note that another specific challenge for some people with disabilities during an emergency is evacuation. What planning has the city done for people who need the most help?

Caballero: There are plans around evacuation and transportation, but I think that you’re going to hear from Mr. Stenson that they’re too vague, they’re too superficial for actual use and in many cases they may be outdated, as our systems are changing, and different players are coming into transportation that those plans have to keep up with those.

Miller: As you noted, I do wanna hear from Tom Stenson about that. Let me remind folks who I’m talking to, right now, Mary Hull Caballero is the Auditor for the City of Portland. Tom Stenson is Deputy Legal Director for Disability Rights Oregon. We’re talking right now because the auditor’s office released an audit this morning as well as a connected report. They’re looking into the City’s Bureau of Emergency Management and arguing the city is not doing enough to protect people with disabilities. So Tom Stenson, first in the big picture. I’m curious what most stood out to you in this audit of the Bureau of Emergency Management?

Tom Stenson: Dave, thanks for having me on. What really struck me is that people with disabilities are just absent from the planning process. First of all, they’re not involved in producing the plans. There didn’t seem to be any active outreach and involvement of people with disabilities in producing the plans, which is the best way to get a disaster plan that actually meets the needs that people with disabilities have. They know best what they need and what challenges they face. And there was almost no mention of people with disabilities or concepts around how they would be served. So that was really distressing to see.


Miller: One of the things that occurs to me as you’re describing this is it’s important to note that we’re talking about people with a very, very wide variety of abilities and disabilities and specific needs that they might have from the city, right? We’re not talking about a unified body of people. This is a very diverse population.

Stenson: Absolutely. So there are different kinds of needs that are going to arise in different ways in different disasters. Communication is a big one. The city has several communications-related disaster plans, but not a single one of them mentions the existence of deaf people or people who are hard of hearing or people who are blind and there’s no discussion of how are we going to reach people who are deaf and let them know what’s going on. We saw this happen across the country during the pandemic, where lots of authorities, including the White House, including the Governor of New York, didn’t include people who are deaf or who are hard of hearing in their broadcasts about the pandemic. And in fact, there ultimately had to be lawsuits to force people to tell people who are deaf what’s going on with the pandemic because they were being left out. Having a plan that just doesn’t mention people who are deaf or talk about how you’re going to communicate, ‘here’s where you evacuate to or you should stay in your house or there’s a forest fire and here’s where it’s located and here’s where we think it’s going to move next.’ People who are deaf need to know what’s going on. And there needs to be communications that are aimed at them and that’s totally absent from the communications plan.

Miller: What is at stake in what we’re talking about right now. I mean, what might the gaps you are talking about mean during the worst disasters that the city and the region is thinking about? I mean, I’m thinking in particular about the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, if it were to happen today, what do you envision in terms of people with disabilities?

Stenson: We know that when there’s a disaster, people who have disabilities, along with people who are elderly, people who are poor, people of color, they’re the worst affected by those disasters. The majority of people who died in Katrina, for instance, were people who are elderly and people who had disabilities. The majority of people who died in Hurricane Irma were people with disabilities who died after the hurricane struck, owing to the loss of power and the loss of air conditioning and in the Florida heat, people who were stuck in their apartments or nursing homes and care facilities were unable to escape, and so hundreds of people died unnecessarily. We know that every time there’s a disaster, if we don’t plan for the needs of people with disabilities, they’re going to be left behind and they’re going to be the ones who die. We saw that in the heat wave this summer. We’re doing our own investigation of the deaths of people in the heat wave in June of this year. We haven’t completed our study yet, but we’re finding that a substantial majority of the people who died had disabilities of one variety or another.

Miller: You are the Deputy Legal Director for Disability Rights Oregon. The audit specifically says that the Bureau exposes itself to lawsuits, something that the Bureau pushed back on in its response. But I’m wondering if you agree, if based on what you know and what you’ve learned from this report, if the City is exposing itself to lawsuits specifically because of its actions?

Stenson: Sure, and in fact the City Emergency Management Bureau was involved in a program back in 2016 and one of the specific findings was that people who weren’t prepared to deal with the needs of people with disabilities were exposing themselves to lawsuits and gave examples of lawsuits in Los Angeles and New York. So this isn’t news. I mean this is well documented. It’s just that Portland is disregarding that substantial risk.

Miller: Mary Hull Caballero, as always, you included a response from the leaders of the Bureau that you audited at the end, in this case, the Interim Director of the Bureau and the Mayor who is in charge of the bureau. Among other things, they wrote that they’re disappointed that you didn’t quote ‘Acknowledge resource constraints within the Bureau.’ Specifically, they point out the fact that the office receives less than 0.1% of the city’s annual budget. To what extent do you think that the issues that you flagged can be tied to the budget?

Caballero: Dave, the Mayor of the City of Portland is the single person most responsible for delivering resources to the appropriate places in the city and as the auditor, my job is to point out where there are substantial risks to people and to the city for not achieving its goals. And in this case there’s a federal law on the books that says the city is obligated to do that. So I don’t believe it is my place to say you need more resources. Where it’s my place to say is, that city council needs to step into this situation and to work with the bureaus to make sure that they’re resourced appropriately to meet the obligations under the law. So every audit I do could have a recommendation saying X Bureau needs more money, but that is not generally what we say. We can point out where there are risks, and in the Audit, we talk about, there’s a lack of capacity in the city to, a lack of expertise, lack of capacity to achieve the requirements under the law, and now it’s up to the City Council to lead.

Miller: They also pointed out to the interim director and the Mayor in their response,  that the bureau runs the largest community emergency volunteer program in the U. S., and that this Neighborhood Emergency Team Program or NET  includes and has been working with people with disabilities for years, now. That’s not something you mentioned, at least if I read your audit correctly, why not? And what do you make of their inclusion of this? As I read it, they weren’t super explicit, but the sense I got is, ‘hey, you neglected to mention this program and this program does do significant work with people with disabilities.’ I’m curious what your response to their response is?

Caballero:  In that instance,  Dave, the criteria that we used to examine where the city was in terms of its obligations under the law, was the ‘Best Practices Toolkit for State and Local Governments’ that’s put out by the Justice Department. And as I said earlier, the fundamental building blocks are not in place in the city. We don’t say that they haven’t done anything. We say that they haven’t done things according to setting up a system that will be effective in the event of an emergency. And the city must intentionally meet the needs of people with disabilities, not accidentally meet them while serving everyone else. And those groups that are set up are, I’m sure they’re fine for lots of purposes. But if you’re not specifically zeroed in on the needs of people with disabilities, then there’s a good chance that you’re, you’re not going to be able to serve them when they need it most.

Miller: Before we say goodbye. I want to turn to the other report you put out today. So we’ve been talking about your investigation into the city’s Bureau of Emergency Management, but you also put out a second one that seems to have been connected to the work you did looking into that Bureau, but it’s much more citywide. The title of the second report is ‘City Does Not Ensure Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance’. What do you see as the important headlines Portlanders should know based on this second report?

Caballero:  Okay. I think that the second report is calling attention to findings that we made in 2016 in an audit we did back then,  where we looked at citywide compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we made recommendations at that time. And what we are saying again today is that there’s been very little progress on those recommendations. And so the federal law is coming up on its 30th birthday, and what we’re seeing is year after year after year, the city is not making progress that it must be making to make sure that it’s in compliance with that law. We just felt compelled that the risks for noncompliance were very serious. The effects are very serious. People’s lives are at stake. And so we did produce the second document to ask council to come to the table and to, as a group, make sure that the City is set up to comply with the law and that they’re monitoring the systems to make sure it is in compliance.

Miller: Tom Stenson. What do you most hope will come from this audit and this report?

Stenson: What I would like to see is a thorough review of the emergency processes, the disaster response that closely involves people with disabilities, to speak to their own experiences, and involves them in that process. One of the things we see that’s obviously a bad plan for people with disabilities is our evacuation plan mostly relies on putting people in open fields and parks, which is a reasonable option for a lot of people and it’s a good option after an earthquake, but it is totally inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs and who use crutches and walkers. An open field is totally inaccessible to people who need mobility devices, and anybody who has a disability would look at that evacuation plan and say we need something else, there needs to be another element of the plan to make sure people with disabilities have a place they can go.

Miller: Tom Stenson and Mary Hull Caballero, thanks very much.

Caballero: Thank you.

Stenson: Thank you.

Miller: Tom Stenson is Deputy Legal Director for Disability Rights Oregon. Mary Hull Caballero is the elected Auditor for the City of Portland.

Contact “Think Out Loud®”

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.