Deaf Staten Island victim of Hurricane Sandy says pleas go unheeded
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- When police with megaphones rolled through Carol Lazorisak’s Oakwood Beach neighborhood in the hours before the hurricane thrust ashore, she did not hear their announcement about evacuation help.
In the days after the surge ripped her Tarlton Street home off its foundation, filled it with water to a depth of 5 feet and tossed her shed nearly a block away, she joined the thousands of other dazed victims at Miller Field in New Dorp, seeking some answers and a measure of comfort.
But for Ms. Lazorisak, who has been deaf since birth, walking through the bustling relief center was like being in a movie on silent. There were no signs providing information for the deaf or directing people to translation services. She left feeling more isolated than ever.
“I am extremely frustrated because of the lack of communication, the lack of help, the lack of information. I was left lost and in the dark for the first two weeks after Sandy destroyed my home,” said Ms. Lazorisak, as her friend Marybeth Imsho translated from American Sign Language — a service she has provided during virtually every face-to-face meeting with FEMA or city agencies, and at the borough president’s town hall meeting last month — where no interpreter was provided for nearly a dozen deaf audience members. “My home is going to be demolished by the city in the next week and I need information.”
Ms. Lazorisak — an Advance Woman of Achievement and a professor at Hunter College — understands the urgency of communication, especially during crises like Sandy, and the requirements of the American with Disabilities Act that everyone have equal access to services.
Even before Sandy hit, she lectured to municipalities on how to assist the hearing-impaired before, during and after natural disasters: In other words, how to avoid meting out the kind of treatment she said she has received at the hands of FEMA and the city.
“Now I’m the one who needs help and nobody has helped me and nobody has helped me on Staten Island,” she said.
Since the storm, she has sometimes used her car as a hotel room on wheels, or spending nights in friends’ homes near the Queens campus where she teaches and on the Island.
Her husband, who is retired and also deaf, left their home for Florida to live with their grown daughter. She plans to join him after she finishes the semester.
“I have nothing left here,” she said of the neighborhood where her family has lived for three generations. “I’m leaving New York.”
Her home of 40 years, which she, her husband and late father painstakingly restored and improved, is covered in grime and smells of growing mold. Cracks in the foundation can be seen in the brand-new bathroom. It cannot be saved.
Ms. Lazorisak said she has received not a penny from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because she has flood insurance. Her insurer has, so far, said it would pay $10,000 of a maximum of $20,000. Her homeowner’s insurance has refused to cover anything.
“My life washed away in five minutes,” she said, recounting what a neighbor told her about how violently the water pushed inland, destroying the whole block within five minutes. “This was a tsunami.”
But the second tragedy came in the form of being shut out by the government and the people who were supposed to help, she said.
When FEMA came to survey the home, she texted that she is deaf but no such person accompanied them during her walk-through.
She gave up on Miller Field after the first meeting, but even at the Hylan Boulevard Center in Dongan Hills, where a sign proclaims interpretative services are available, they simply offered her a computer and told her to make a video call. “I asked them, ‘Where is the interpreter?’ They said, ‘We have these things to use.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘Equipment.’ I need a live interpreter, not a piece of equipment.”
She tried to use the video-relay equipment provided, which took 45 minutes to set up, only to be told by an operator that it was for outside calls, not individual meetings. “I lost an hour of time and I only had a five-minute question,” said Ms. Lazorisak. After that frustrating experience, she didn’t return until Ms. Imsho could clear space on her schedule and accompany her friend.
“It’s very emotional. There’s a lot of information. You have to take your own notes. It’s not something you can do while turning to look at a video,” said Ms. Imsho.
The city’s response was hardly better, she said, amounting to mobile devices, which did not work well, or an Internet connection.
“We don’t see the use of the iPad or the use of the video-relay interpreter as the whole solution, but we see it as immediate access to effective communication,” said Marcie Roth, director of FEMA’s office of disability integration and coordination, who could not comment specifically about Ms. Lazorisak’s situation but explained that all recovery centers have computer-assisted technology to allow for conversations to be interpreted.
“We are committed to providing access to effective communication. With the large number of disaster recovery centers open at once, it would be virtually impossible to provide enough interpreters from the moment they opened to the moment they closed each and every day.”
Still, she said, it is possible to call ahead and make an appointment with an interpreter.
Not so, according to Ms. Lazorisak and Ms. Imsho, who detailed how they pleaded with officials simply to provide appointments with interpeters.
Similarly, calls placed to local elected officials days in advance of public meetings to request a sign language interpreter were simply ignored, said Ms. Imsho.
According to FEMA, the agency will supply an interpreter, even if the meeting isn’t their own, if they receive a request in advance.
Although Ms. Roth could not offer a tally of the number of interpreters on call in the New York area, she said there is a staff. At a public municipal meeting on Long Island this week, FEMA provided interpreters, she noted; she promised to follow up with Ms. Lazorisak to explore the disconnect.
Meanwhile, the city sent a statement, reading in part:
“The city strives to meet the needs of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. For example, as you recall, there were ASL interpreters at the mayor’s daily Hurricane Sandy briefings during the height of the storm. Furthermore, the city’s recovery centers have been instructed to provide this community with reasonable accommodation consistent with the ADA. This accommodation includes making arrangements for an on-site ASL interpreter, writing down instructions, and employing other mechanisms when practicable.”
For now, Ms. Lazorisak is looking forward to Monday’s multi-agency meeting and another, on Dec. 19, with attorneys, sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Lanza.
“We have asked them to provide services,” said Ms. Imsho, who was told they couldn’t help and she should do the interpretation, pro bono.
But she herself has to teach that night at St. John’s University, and cannot be there. “Of course I would volunteer. I’ve volunteered many hours to help. But it’s against the law for them to expect it. It’s their duty to provide equal access to everybody.”