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Vol. 44, No. 2

Weathering the storm: Recent hurricanes, other natural disasters require planning, coordinated effort

By Robert J. Derocher

As historic Hurricane Dorian churned toward the Bahamas in late August, several forecasting models had the deadly storm tracking over or near the Florida peninsula. With dire predictions of near-200-mile-per-hour winds and epic rainfall in the uncertain forecast, The Florida Bar took no chances: Several pieces of a multifaceted disaster preparedness plan were activated.

“It was the first time we were able to open up a hotline and solicit volunteers before the storm actually hit,” says Santo DiGangi, president of the bar’s Young Lawyers Division. “We were ready if the storm hit.”

Meanwhile, Florida bar leaders kept daily tabs on the mercurial storm as it lingered off the Atlantic Coast before finally pulling away.

“We were communicating early and told people to stay tuned. We have a plan in place,” says Marcy Jackson, the bar’s chief financial officer, who also oversees emergency preparedness and response. “Staff knows that we’re going to communicate. During a storm, you typically lose cell service, which is why planning ahead is key. They know it’s going to be the same, storm after storm after storm.”

And when Dorian finally made a brief but powerful landfall on the North Carolina coast, another group of legal organizations—under the umbrella of Disaster Legal Services of North Carolina—was also ready with disaster response plans. Although a full response rollout wasn’t implemented in the state, volunteers were still ready to help, with some pressed into action.

“Every disaster provides us with a little more opportunity to improve our services, expand our services, and make sure we are getting the resources out to people who need it,” says Kim Bart Mullikin, senior director of the North Carolina Bar Foundation and a key member of the Disaster Legal Services team.

Whether they be hurricanes, floods, wildfires or other natural disasters, those opportunities seem to keep coming for Mullikin and other legal service providers. While not everyone pegs the activity to climate change, it’s one aspect of disaster preparedness that is clearly on the minds of many as they work to develop and hone plans to prepare for and respond to disasters. Advance planning and improving technology are key pieces of the process, whether it’s an external plan to help the public or an internal approach to make sure the bar and its members have the resources they need. And while many legal service providers continue to make strides in their planning efforts, challenges in funding, volunteerism and coordination remain, amidst growing unease about a problem that shows little sign of abating.

Coordination, training, and a first-ever summit

Last year, North Carolina had to contend with two hurricanes within a month―Michael and Florence―that caused deaths, record flooding and widespread damage that set many communities on their heels.

“There is this assumption that we need to be prepared every year,” Mullikin says. “There is no such thing as a small disaster.”

Similar to most other state bars, there is a formal agreement involving the North Carolina Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, the ABA Young Lawyers Division, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to develop plans to provide emergency-related legal services help to citizens adversely affected by a federally declared disaster. Much of that assistance is provided pro bono by local and state bar members, via hotline referrals and visits to disaster assistance centers in affected areas.

Last year’s twin hurricanes, combined with destructive tornadoes in the last few years, provided North Carolina’s Disaster Legal Services team with the impetus to enhance its services, Mullikin says, with an emphasis on improving planning and preparation. Through the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center (part of the North Carolina State Bar’s Equal Access to Justice Commission), a full-time coordinator of disaster response services was hired last year.

In August of this year—just weeks before Dorian formed—the Pro Bono Resource Center and the North Carolina Bar Foundation joined forces to develop and host the state’s first-ever Disaster Legal Services Summit. The meeting centered on lessons learned from previous storms and ways to improve planning for disaster response, with a focus on better matching and managing citizen legal cases, better coordination with other agencies at disaster service centers and helping the public with appeals for FEMA disaster aid.

Although Dorian’s brush with North Carolina did not lead to the presidential disaster declaration needed to fully activate disaster legal assistance, Mullikin says agencies were prepared and directed people to assistance where needed. A call for volunteers and where to go for information was sent out via the bar’s weekly electronic newsletter and on social media.

“Because of that summit, we were very prepared for when Dorian was coming our way,” she says. “It gave us a chance to try some new program support, such as working with our paralegal division to do some case management.”

But the training isn’t done, she adds. A “boot camp” cosponsored by the bar association and foundation, along with other service organizations, is scheduled for mid-November, providing “soup to nuts” disaster training on issues such as helping storm victims file insurance claims, preventing homelessness, and working with disaster survivors. As a carrot for attorneys and paralegals, the event will provide CLE credit.

Disasters not just a coastal phenomenon

In Nebraska, four years of disaster preparedness training paid dividends earlier this year when a “bomb cyclone” sparked record blizzard conditions, record flooding, dam failures, and mandatory evacuations that displaced and stranded thousands of residents amid widespread damage.

Working with disaster legal services infrastructure plans developed from grants from private organizations via the Legal Services Corp., Legal Aid of Nebraska served as the lead legal intake group in a multi-agency response to provide legal services assistance that is still continuing, says Shirley Peng, managing attorney for Legal Aid’s Disaster Relief Project. The Nebraska State Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) was also a key player in matching attorneys with cases, say Peng and the director of the VLP, Laurel Heer Dale.

The disaster legal services plan was developed after destructive tornadoes in 2014 left Nebraska legal service organizations feeling “they weren’t part of the picture” of subsequent disaster recovery efforts, according to Peng.

In the years since, Legal Aid and the VLP has done “a lot of networking with disaster responders and disaster preparedness and planning agencies, and working with community members, making them aware of the need for legal help in disasters,” Peng says. “We put in the work four years prior to the [recent] disaster so that people weren’t saying, ‘Oh, I don’t need legal services,’ or ‘I don’t know who to call or who to talk to.’”

Peng and Dale are now spreading the word about the success of the disaster infrastructure plan. In Nebraska, that means offering a four-hour CLE program in five locations statewide, emphasizing how to help storm victims pursue legal help. Outside Nebraska, Peng is updating a presentation at multiple legal services conferences nationwide, touting the value of the LSC disaster infrastructure planning and development model—a requirement of the grant they received.

“With climate change, the disasters are getting more frequent, more intense, so it was a good strategic move to start giving money for disaster services planning,” she says. “[LSC] wants to make sure that what we’re doing is replicable and adaptable to other communities and other states.”

Collaboration is a must

One of the requirements of the Legal Aid of Nebraska grant is a key ingredient to most any disaster legal services planning effort, Peng and others say: collaboration. The Nebraska bar provided the willing partnership that was needed to secure the grant, according to Peng.

In more than 14 years as legal advisor for the Connecticut Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security—along with being counsel for the National Emergency Management Association—Brenda Bergeron says disaster legal services is an increasingly key team player in disaster planning, as well as response.

“We’ve seen tremendous efforts at the community level, recognizing the importance of collaborating and coordinating,” she says. “The heart of emergency management is having everyone at the table, in advance of a disaster, during a disaster and after a disaster.”

Adds Mullikin, “No one organization can take on disaster legal services on their own. The more you can coordinate, the more effective they’ll be and the more people they’ll reach.”

Assistance requires both short- and long-term effort

Assistance also comes in the form of help from other bar associations and foundations, as Mullikin discovered when the New York Bar Foundation held a fundraiser in the wake of Hurricane Florence, with proceeds going to the North Carolina Bar Foundation. And financial support is key, she and others say, in order to continue developing proactive training, education and logistical support for disaster legal services. Seeking funds through grants and other means has become a year-round project, Mullikin says.

Seven years after Hurricane Sandy battered the Northeast, the state of Connecticut was still providing funding to repair damage caused by the hurricane, Bergeron notes, illustrating the lasting nature of disaster recovery.

“It’s a challenge to maintain funding,” she says. “How do you engage those who control the budget to continue to put money into preparedness?”

Engagement can also be difficult in retaining volunteers, because cases of insurance claims, FEMA appeals and property repair can drag on for months—and years.

“With Florence, it was weeks before they even had basic needs met,” Mullikin says. “It was several weeks later when you had FEMA claims, insurance claims, landlords evicting tenants, and people dealing with lost critical [documents] like wills, birth certificates and titles. We remind volunteers that it’s emotionally taxing to work with storm victims.”

It is also rewarding, says DiGangi of The Florida Bar, who has been a volunteer helping storm victims for six years. Finding volunteers to prepare for Dorian posed few problems, he says—much like previous storms.

“We’re unique in that Floridians are more sensitive to these storms because most people are going to be affected by one at some point,” he says. “We’ve been battle-tested and kind of have this down to an art at this point.”

The payoff, he and others say, is in providing legal assistance to people who need it most. It is what motivates them and others to continue building on and improving efforts to help the public after disaster strikes.

“As lawyers, we take our knowledge for granted sometimes. If we just take 10 minutes on a call, what’s simple for us is a game-changer or life game-changer for them,” he says. “A little bit of help on your end is making their lives so much easier in terms of getting them back to where they were before the storm hit. It’s part of our duty as lawyers to help the public in times of need.”