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Elizabeth A. Blair is ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services vice-director and a grants compliance officer with the American Red Cross in San Diego, California.
By Elizabeth A. Blair
In September 2009, when an 8.1 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the island of American Samoa (as well as Tonga and Samoa), President Barack Obama declared a major disaster and FEMA mobilized the ABA YLD’s Disaster Legal Assistance program (DLS) to provide low-income disaster victims with pro bono legal services. At the conclusion of the DLS program, the remaining open cases moved into the Governor’s Post Disaster Legal Aid Team. The Governor’s Team handled these open cases as well as any additional legal issues that disaster victims faced.
Unlike many past disasters handled by the ABA YLD’s Disaster Legal Services team, DLS encountered challenges in American Samoa not generally faced in the mainland United States. Because American Samoa is not part of the American Bar Association, the ABA Young Lawyers Division does not have a District Representative for the island. Generally, it is the District Representative who is responsible for coordinating disaster legal services in the affected district. Also, the legal system in American Samoa is much different than in the mainland United States. This made it difficult for another District Representative to simply step in.
One commonality between the American Samoan DLS and other DLS operations is that the national DLS team turned to local organizations for assistance with the program. With no large law firms on the island and many attorneys off island, the focus quickly turned to the capabilities of the local bar association.
The American Samoan Bar Association or ASBA was instrumental in the successful operation of DLS and helping the disaster victims. The ASBA President quickly appointed an attorney to handle the DLS response and was able to fully staff the hotline and Disaster Recovery Center. Thanks to the hard work of the American Samoan Bar Association and its dedicated group of volunteer attorneys, American Samoans received the legal assistance they desperately needed after this disaster.
The primary lesson learned from the American Samoan DLS program is that the successful operation of a DLS program requires coordination between many organizations and a cadre of volunteers able to answer legal questions that range from criminal and family law matters to real estate and FEMA issues. These organizations can include state and/or local bar associations, large (or mid-size) law firms, and legal aid groups.
Many more disaster victims will require legal services in the future. As the legal community, it is our job to provide necessary legal assistance when the victims of a disaster are trying to put their lives back together. Below please find a checklist to use to ensure that you, your family, your law firm, and your bar association are prepared should a disaster strike in your community.
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One of the principal public service programs of the ABA Young Lawyers Division is Disaster Legal Services (DLS). When the U.S. President declares a major disaster, public and individual assistance programs may be authorized. One of these individual assistance programs is DLS. Through a Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the ABA YLD provides low-income disaster victims with pro bono legal services through a toll free hotline and a staff of volunteer attorneys at the local Disaster Recovery Centers. The national DLS team coordinates Disaster Legal Services through the District Representatives, attorneys selected by state and or local bar associations.
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Checklist for Disaster Preparedness
Preparedness starts with individuals. Only when we are prepared ourselves can we help others in need.
Business Preparedness (regardless of size)
Disaster Legal Services Preparedness
Here are a few things you can do to assist with DLS in your area.
Additional resources can be found at www.abanet.org/disaster/legal_assistance.html .