A Storm That Changed Thousands of Lives and One Law School

Vol. 37 No. 3

By

Patricia E. Salkin is dean and professor of law at the Touro Law Center, Central Islip, New York, a Past-Chair of the State & Local Government Law Section, and Section Delegate.

Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 marked the most significant natural disaster in living memory in the northeast with a direct hit to Long Island—home to 3 million people in Nassau and Suffolk Counties—and Touro Law Center. Immediately following the storm, Touro Law launched a significant community service and pro bono outreach effort—providing free legal assistance and referrals to anyone in need in the wake of Sandy. That effort grew to become the only comprehensive disaster law program of its kind in the country. We added a disaster law course to our curriculum and opened a Disaster Relief Clinic, where students work under close faculty supervision with clients. In addition, we have been organizing service trips to the area for law students from around the country who want to come to the region and offer pro bono assistance. As the legal needs for many continue, Touro Law is strategically placed to continue to help as the country’s only law school with a campus adjacent to both the state and federal courthouses where the lawsuits are playing out.

Three days after the storm, faculty, staff, students, and alumni gathered in our auditorium to brainstorm about what we could do to help our devastated community. We also invited the ABA Young Lawyers Division District Representative who is the local liaison with FEMA, the leadership of the Suffolk and Nassau County Bar Associations, and other local NGO leaders. What emerged from that initial meeting of about 80 volunteers was remarkable. It was agreed that we would immediately organize and coordinate with local legal services providers to establish a pro bono legal services effort. That same week, on Friday, we held a press conference to announce our intention to serve as a point of coordination and referral with partners including the New York State Bar Association, the Suffolk County Bar Association, and many others. We announced a phone number and e-mail address where the public could access help beginning the following week. That week we organized our list of student volunteers, developed intake sheets, set up a web address and Facebook page where information could be posted for the public, and we developed a training program for students, faculty, staff, and alumni who volunteered to staff the “HEART Line.”

Exactly one week after the storm, Touro Law was the first legal services organization in the region to mobilize and launch a pro bono effort to help people and small businesses affected by the storm. The phone/e-mail referral and assistance center opened, which we called TLC HEART (Touro Law Center Hurricane Emergency Assistance Response Team).

Touro Law Center’s Comprehensive Disaster Law Program Is the Only One of Its Kind in the Country

At the suggestion and organization of Touro Law, all of the legal service providers on Long Island met together in the same room at Touro Law Center to create an ongoing forum for the open exchange of information and support to enable all of us to better serve those in need. The initial meeting resulted in weekly coordinated phone calls and wiser sharing and allocation of available resources.

To date, we have assisted more than 1,600 Sandy-affected households, predominantly seniors and working families in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Sandy-related legal needs have ranged from FEMA’s disaster assistance program, flood and homeowner insurance, landlord-tenant disputes, real property issues, and contractor disputes. Since the summer of 2013, the greatest unmet need in vulnerable populations has converged around three core areas: flood insurance disputes, which are widespread and frequently involve underpayments of 50% or more; disputes with contractors over substandard work; and mortgage and foreclosure issues arising from significant uncovered losses.

One month following the storm we began to develop a more robust plan for sustained leadership and service. Our faculty approved a new seminar course in disaster law and a new Disaster Relief Clinic. The clinic is fully staffed with faculty and students and is actively engaged in providing legal services to our community. Professor Benjamin Rajotte was hired and the clinic began serving clients in January 2013.

By training law students in this clinical setting, we are able to nurture and draw upon their talents, while engendering their commitment to public service. Up to 10 upper-level law students work in each of our clinics at any given time, which translates to a collective 100–120 billable-quality student hours per week at the Disaster Relief Clinic.

Through this experience and the supportive and caring academic community that Touro Law provides, students are able to hone their practical lawyering skills while enabling the law school to help a significantly greater number of at-risk Sandy households.

Still, more is needed to be done to help satisfy the unmet legal needs in the community. We are facilitating the arrival and placement of law students from other schools around the country and even overseas who want to travel to the region and offer pro bono help. To date we have benefited from the assistance of more than 50 students from more than half-dozen schools.

Touro Law has emerged as a leader and innovator in having developed the only comprehensive disaster law program of its kind in the country. We have collaborated with bar associations and nonprofit organizations and other institutions. We have received referrals for assistance from places as varied as local church organizations to the Governor’s Office to FEMA. We have received funding from private individuals (including a seed grant from Martin and Reva Oliner), law firms, and institutional funders including the Robin Hood Foundation, Long Island Community Foundation, Long Island United Way, and New York State to ensure our worthwhile efforts continue for years to come. Touro Law Center’s response to the storm is no doubt having a lasting and positive impact on the community and on a generation of future lawyers.

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