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Preparing for the worst: Legal issues at the heart of disaster response

Preparing for the worst: Legal issues at the heart of disaster response

By John Glynn

When Lai Sun Yee began a job in 2001 in New York City’s Office of Emergency Management, she could not have imagined that she would confront a tragedy on the scale of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Nothing like learning about your agency and your authorities as a lawyer during a terrorist attack,” Yee said.

In the carnage of that day, New York’s Office of Emergency Management was crushed under thousands of tons of shattered concrete and twisted steel. The city lost the nucleus of its disaster recovery efforts.

Yee and other experts in the field discussed the legal issues that disaster responders encounter during the Feb. 7 panel discussion “Disaster Response and Preparedness: The Legal Hot Spots in an Urban Mass Casualty Incident” at the 2014 American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in Chicago.

Anthony Barash, chair of the ABA Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness, emphasized the need for lawyers to educate themselves about disaster plans and recovery.

“We exist in a system of systems of systems,” he explained, referring to the interconnectedness of power, heating and cooling, transportation and infrastructure that characterizes modern life. Barash described those systems as “frail.”

“When something adversely occurs, the community looks to its lawyers,” he added.

Gary Schenkel, executive director of the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications, offered a local perspective. He said that Chicago has a “robust” ability to recover from a widespread emergency, but that smaller jurisdictions would be overtaxed in similar situations.

Schenkel emphasized that regardless of the size of the event or the jurisdiction’s ability to respond, officials must speak with one voice so that information is relayed to the public without conflicting sources and facts.

Determining the best person to speak as that one voice can be a challenge. James McPherson, executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General, said the first major question that officials must confront is who is in charge and how legal advice should be reported up the chain of command.

At the state level, lawyers who work for emergency response agencies could alternatively report to the state attorney general or the governor. Some emergency response bodies are led by the head of police. Regardless of who reports to whom, every governor has a legal adviser who may interpret authorities differently than disaster agency lawyers.

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