When disaster hit the Florida coast this past June it brought with it relentless rainfall and terrorizing winds, leaving in its wake a soggy trail of damaged homes, beaches, and roads. The ABA YLD and the Florida Young Lawyers Division, working in tandem, were able to spring into action within 24 hours of the first request for help to establish an emergency hotline and mobilize volunteers. Because of the Florida YLD’s preparation and quick response in the face of turmoil, volunteers were able to provide crucial assistance to Florida residents and storm survivors desperate to rebuild and reclaim their normal everyday lives. Three key components to Florida’s success included (1) excellent training from the ABA YLD’s Disaster Legal Services (DLS) Team on the front end, (2) simplification of a complex process by the DLS Team, and (3) the Florida YLD’s development of best management practices and a commitment to continued preparedness.
The Debby Disaster
On July 12, 2012, David Nguyen, Director of DLS for the ABA YLD received an official request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate pro bono legal services for survivors of Tropical Storm Debby, a major disaster that severely impacted the state of Florida and its residents. Tropical Storm Debby made landfall around 5:00 p.m. EDT on June 26, 2012, along the northwestern side of the Gulf Coast near Steinhatchee, Florida. In addition to producing tropical force winds in 12 counties and coastal flooding and erosion, Debby spawned a staggering 18 confirmed tornadoes touching down in the Florida Peninsula. The massive tropical storm produced prolific rainfall that caused flash flood warnings to be called in 18 counties. Rainfall amounts in excess of 12 inches were observed over a large part of Northern Florida, with several locations reporting 24-hour rainfall amounts in excess of 20 inches. This excessive rainfall caused several rivers to flood throughout the North and Central Florida areas.
“I have determined that this event is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments, and that supplementary federal assistance is necessary,” reported Governor Rick Scott on July 1, after declaring a state of emergency on June 25. In particular need of federal assistance were Pasco, Baker, Bradford, and Columbia Counties, where statistics show that the elderly and disabled populations exceed the national average and the median household income is below the national average.
The ABA has a long-standing relationship with FEMA dating back to 1978 when the Agency entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the ABA Young Lawyers Division. When disaster strikes and FEMA invokes the Memorandum, FEMA contacts a member of the ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services Team who in turn contacts the relevant ABA YLD District Representative. The District Representative is then responsible for contacting the leaders of the state and local bar associations, local legal aid groups, and local law firms to implement the state’s disaster legal services plan.
For members of Florida’s Young Lawyers Division, including ABA YLD District Representative Keri-Ann Baker, addressing the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby meant moving quickly to meet the emergency legal needs of Florida residents. “When the disaster was declared, the Florida YLD was able to respond with volunteers within 24 hours because we had already recruited the volunteers before the emergency,” said Baker.
“The ABA YLD’s Disaster Legal Service Team’s training and training materials were instrumental to the success of this program. I was surprised about how the DLS Team simplified the process,” said Baker. “Two years ago, I sat through the ABA YLD’s Disaster Legal Services Training. The training was comprehensive, but I confess I lived in fear of overseeing a federally declared disaster, and living in Florida, I knew it was only a matter of time until a weather-related disaster was declared.” Despite Baker’s concerns, however, the Florida Young Lawyers Division proved to be prepared for handling such a disaster. “At the training, I learned the importance of recruiting volunteers before any emergency. The Florida Young Lawyers Division sent out letters recruiting volunteers at the beginning of each bar year and created a list of over 40 lawyers. This practice was critical to Florida’s timely response.”
The DLS response to Tropical Storm Debby in Florida was a joint effort among the ABA YLD, FEMA, and Bay Area Legal Services, Inc., a local legal services provider.
With the talents exhibited by District Representatives, the DLS Team, and young lawyer volunteers, like those from Florida, the ABA YLD will continue providing valuable relief to those facing emergency situations across the country.