Colorado Coalition Responds Swiftly to Floods

Vol. 39 No. 3

By

David H.K. Nguyen is the ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services Director, and Lance Timbreza is the ABA YLD District Representative for Colorado and Wyoming.

Partnerships and preparedness are critical to being able to respond swiftly to the legal needs of disaster survivors. The young lawyers in Colorado have set a high standard in their response to the devastating floods that claimed at least eight lives and damaged at least 19,000 homes. The state bar association disaster preparedness plan and partnerships that were developed before the floods allowed the Colorado coalition to set up a pro bono legal hotline within days.

During the week of September 9, 2013, Colorado experienced heavy rains that caused catastrophic flooding. This weather pattern affected the regions of Colorado Springs, Boulder, Lyons, Greeley, and areas north to Fort Collins, as well as the eastern plains. As a result, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper declared a disaster emergency for 15 counties and sought assistance from the federal government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Activating Disaster Legal Services

As a result of the disaster declaration, the ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program was activated. The DLS program works with local legal organizations and associations to provide pro bono legal services to disaster survivors through a toll-free hotline. Sometimes, depending on the impact of the disaster, legal assistance can be provided face-to-face in a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. Usually when this program is implemented, a toll-free hotline is set up, volunteers are recruited, and cases are distributed appropriately. Usually one organization (a state or local bar association) does most of the work, with other organizations providing support.

The 2013 Colorado disaster legal response to the floods is unique because of the immediate coalition that was created by the different legal organizations in Colorado. Most times, one organization takes on the initial responsibility and builds partnerships with other organizations later. Many in the disaster legal services community believe that a holistic collaborative effort provides better legal representation to those most in need not only by avoiding duplication of efforts but also by keeping lines of communication open to share best practices.

Taking Swift Action

The ABA YLD worked in conjunction with the Colorado Bar Association and its Young Lawyers Division (CBA) to take swift action. David Nguyen, ABA Disaster Legal Services Director, contacted Lance Timbreza, ABA YLD District Representative for Colorado and Wyoming, and instructed Lance to activate disaster legal services within 48 hours. Lance then contacted the Disaster Legal Services Team for the CBA, which included Executive Director Chuck Turner, CBA President Judge Terry Ruckriegle, and CBA YLD Chair Emma Garrison. Chuck and Judge Ruckriegle then assembled a group of individuals and organizations that included CBA staff (Heather Clark, Kathleen Schoen, and Dana Collier Smith), Lance, former ABA YLD District Representative Margrit Parker, Colorado Legal Services, the Colorado Legal Aid Foundation, CBA President-Elect Charley Garcia, the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, and local bar leaders to come up with a plan for implementation and planning. From there, the Colorado Flood Legal Relief Task Force was formed and within 24 hours of the meeting, the hotline was up and running and the website was active.

By the end of the first week, the CBA had hired a contractor to assist in the effort. Sharon Mohr was brought on as the program coordinator and staff attorney, and Kathleen Schoen spearheaded training efforts, organizational implementation, and case management. Volunteers came from throughout the state.

Pre-Disaster Planning

Pre-disaster planning was instrumental to the success of the Colorado Flood Legal Relief Task Force. Colorado’s disaster legal services plan was created during Margrit Parker’s tenure as ABA YLD District Representative. To draft it, she formed a working group that included Chuck Turner, CBA Communications Specialist Sara Crocker, Colorado Legal Services Managing Attorney Debra Wagner, Jake Eisenstein, Erica Longnecker, Lance Timbreza, and Emma Garrison. The plan was approved by the CBA Board of Governors and has been implemented in both the Colorado wildfires (not a FEMA disaster) and the flood. CBA plans to revisit and update the plan with lessons learned from the recent flood relief.

The website was a unique aspect of the effort. Phil Mervis, an employee of the Colorado Judicial Department, volunteered his time to create and maintain the website. The state judiciary donated two days of Phil’s time to allow him to focus on creating the website. Through the website disaster victims can request assistance, and volunteers can register. Answers to frequently asked questions are also posted to the website. It can be found at http://colofloodlegalrelief.org/.

Training was an important component to the success of the relief efforts, and the CBA arranged several free CLEs for volunteers on topics, such as landlord/tenant law, FEMA benefits, and insurance issues. In addition, the CBA brought in Zach Tusinger who had FEMA experience for hands on/in-person training. The Task Force also established a FEMA clinic where two volunteer attorneys assist FEMA victims with appeals.

Volunteer resources were very important. Volunteers were given free training, and educational videos were posted on a volunteer website so they could be accessed at any time. A listserv was also established for volunteers. The listserv was opened up to members of the CBA’s specialty sections (for example, the real estate section) so that volunteers could ask questions of those with experience in various practice areas.

In the Wake of the Flood

As of this writing, 398 cases have been assigned, with 254 of those closed. Of the closed cases, the majority have been fully resolved, and a quarter of the cases resulted in referrals to attorneys, agencies, or organizations for further assistance. The program is proud to have 280 volunteer attorneys, with 33 nonlawyer volunteers who serve in areas such as Spanish translation/interpretation, law students who are assisting in putting together manuals for volunteers and the public, and paralegals that assist with conducting Spanish language intakes.

From November 14–16, 2013, ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services Director David H.K. Nguyen toured areas of destruction in Colorado and met with FEMA and CBA officials working on the disaster legal response. At that time, much of the debris had been removed and construction had begun to repair the physical damage, but many residents were still seeking assistance through the FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) and the Disaster Legal Services pro bono hotline provided through the Colorado Bar Association.

Although there are no longer any signs of the floods, Boulder, Colorado, has one of the busiest DRCs. While meeting with the DRC manager in Boulder, survivors were signing in and seeking applicant services from the FEMA employees and FEMA Corps volunteers. The ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services banner along with the CBA poster were hung prominently in the DRC, and the manager noted that many survivors had inquired about the services. Uniquely, the CBA poster and flyers are in both English and Spanish. This is the first opportunity for the DLS program to unveil and use the new banners that are to be hung in the DRCs during every disaster legal response. The large size of the banners makes them easily visible to survivors seeking legal assistance while making it clear the mission of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and the partnering organizations is to provide pro bono legal services.

Everyone was clearly impressed with Colorado’s disaster legal services planning and the quick response to survivors’ needs. In addition to creating a comprehensive coalition, the website that was created provided the ability to do case intakes and distribute information and resources to survivors. The bilingual posters and materials that were created provide access to information to non-English speaking and limited-language proficient residents. The Colorado response will help set an example for other states on how to best respond to disasters in their areas.

For more information about the ABA YLD’s DLS program, visit www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/disaster_legal_services.html.

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