PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland failed to ensure proper emergency support for people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic and is unprepared to avoid similar shortfalls during future disasters such as a major earthquake, according to an audit report released this week by the office of City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero.
“The length of the pandemic provided the City with an opportunity to test and refine its response across individuals and groups without the physical destruction of an earthquake or wildfire,” Hull Caballero said in a statement. “It also exposed how unprepared the City is to assist people with disabilities, no matter the type of emergency.”
The lack of preparation creates a risk that the city could be sued, according to the audit, or that the U.S. Department of Justice could investigate and conclude that Portland is not in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
Emergency planning shortfalls
The report primarily focuses on Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), which is responsible for much of the city’s emergency planning efforts. Mayor Ted Wheeler currently serves as the commissioner-in-charge of the bureau.
The audit found that PBEM does not currently collect specific data about the kinds of specialized services that Portlanders with disabilities might need in the aftermath of a disaster, such as tailored notifications or dedicated transportation and evacuation assistance.
People with disabilities need to be able to bring mobility devices and medical equipment with them during an evacuation, and they must be evacuated to a location that is fully accessible. PBEM’s emergency evacuation and transportation plans aren’t set up to make sure those needs are met, the audit found.
The city does maintain a voluntary list called the Additional Needs Registry, but the audit found that very few people have signed up and the list is not used to guide PBEM plans. No city bureau “took ownership” of the tool or made substantial attempts to improve it, the audit found.
PBEM does not have qualified staff to plan effectively for the needs of people with disabilities, the audit found. Many other city bureaus have a designated coordinator to promote compliance with federal law and provide training on disability-related topics, but PBEM does not.
The audit also faulted the city’s Emergency Coordination Center, which is activated during large-scale emergencies and serves as the main operational hub for city responders and assistance, for having no ADA-focused management positions until recently, when an Equity Officer position was added during the pandemic.
The overall lack of preparation puts the lives of people with disabilities at risk, the audit concluded, and runs the risk that Portland could be sued or subjected to a Dept. of Justice review for ADA compliance. Other major cities including Los Angeles, Denver and New York have been sued in the past for failing to adequately consider the needs of people with disabilities in their emergency planning, the audit noted.
“When people with disabilities are not considered and involved in disaster planning, people with disabilities die needlessly in the next disaster, often in large numbers,” Disability Rights Oregon Deputy Legal Director Thomas Stenson wrote in a letter expressing agreement with the audit’s findings.
The audit outlines a series of recommendations for PBEM to centralize the city’s emergency planning and provide better leadership, including giving proper focus to ADA compliance.
One of the more direct recommendations is to reevaluate the Additional Needs Registry and either discontinue it or update it to make sure it’s working as intended and fully complies with ADA guidance from the Department of Justice.
The audit also recommends that PBEM develop a plan with specific milestones to update Portland’s various emergency plans to properly account for the needs of people with disabilities. The bureau should also hire or designate staff to develop ADA expertise and formalize the disability advocate positions that were added to the Emergency Coordination Center structure during the pandemic.
Wheeler and PBEM Interim Director Jonna Papaefthimiou expressed agreement with most of the recommendations in a letter released alongside the audit, although they argued that the report overlooked some of PBEM’s existing equity efforts during the pandemic and did not “acknowledge resource constraints within the bureau.” They also disagreed with the idea that the bureau failed meet DOJ guidelines or exposed itself to lawsuits.
They pledged to reevaluate the Additional Needs Registry next year, and said they agreed with the idea of developing a plan with specific milestones for updating the city’s emergency plans.
They also agreed to support the hiring of an emergency management planner with ADA expertise, and said they would ask for the required funding during the 2022-23 budget process, along with funding for additional staff training on disability issues.