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October 15, 2015 Dialogue

10 Years After Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned and Opportunities for Change

By April Faith-Slaker

In its most essential articulation, pro bono is about a collective sense of responsibility by those who have the skills and means, delivered to those who are the most vulnerable and needy. When a disaster strikes, this responsibility is even more essential, as the inequalities and injustices that permeate society on a daily basis are intensified. But the disaster context, too, provides opportunities for innovative contributions to the common good.

Hurricane Katrina is infamous in our country’s history for exposing critical blind spots regarding disaster preparedness, and the response to the devastated population’s legal needs was no exception. Certainly, the disaster surpassed predictions with its widespread damage. Over 1,800 lives were lost, over a million survivors were displaced from their homes, and with property damage amounting to at least $108 billion, Katrina became the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.[1] The individuals, families, businesses, and communities impacted by Katrina confronted an extensive array of challenges, many engaging them with the legal system. Some of the most common legal issues were related to the FEMA application process, landlord/tenant issues, wage claims, and insurance. Even with an outpouring of help from sympathetic pro bono attorneys and law students, without the infrastructure of a disaster-specific legal services plan, the response was largely reactive and underscored the value of planning ahead.

Where silver linings can be found, one can find them in the lessons learned and the subsequent preventative programs and preparedness efforts that have emerged out of the Katrina disaster. We learned that the legal profession is critical to the process of rebuilding lives, economies, and communities. Since Katrina struck in 2005, the American Bar Association has worked to raise awareness about the legal issues that arise in the disaster context and cultivate preparedness for subsequent disasters. In 2007, the ABA House of Delegates adopted the Model Court Rule on Provision of Legal Services Following Determination of Major Disasters, which permits out-of-state lawyers to provide pro bono legal services in the disaster context.[2] Numerous additional disaster policies were subsequently adopted relating to cybersecurity, rule of law, pro bono representation and legal services programs, health care, insurance and mitigation, the care and disposition of animals, election procedures, and first responder funding.[3]

Lessons Learned from Katrina

As individual programs across the country take up the issue of developing plans for addressing legal needs after a disaster, those who were on the ground in the relief efforts in the days and months following Katrina provide wisdom and an invaluable perspective about what to expect. Two individuals who were intricately involved are Rachel Piercey and Bonnie Allen. Piercey, the Executive Director of the Pro Bono Project, led an effort to connect pro bono attorneys from all over the country with needy clients in disaster-stricken areas. Allen was the President of the Center for Law and Renewal at the Fetzer Institute in Michigan. Beginning one week after the hurricane, she began traveling to Mississippi as a volunteer for the Mississippi Center for Justice to help with the recovery efforts. Both Piercey and Allen generously took the time to answer some questions regarding lessons learned after Katrina and their insights are summarized below. 

The below six lessons regarding legal services in the disaster context emerged from the insights provided by Rachel Piercey and Bonnie Allen, both of whom have been involved in multiple post-disaster relief efforts.

Lesson 1: Know which legal issues to expect and when they will arise

Following a disaster, legal problems emerge in waves; there are different needs that come into play at different times in the recovery process. Initially, legal problems do not present themselves at all, as immediate concerns about evacuation and transportation, connecting with family members, and accessing medical care and shelter eclipse all other concerns. Soon after, however, the following legal issues typically emerge: navigating the FEMA claims process, wage claims, housing and family law abuses, and insurance claims. As federal and state grant programs make funding available, the need to obtain a clear title to one’s property in order to collect benefits gives rise to legal claims. Contractor fraud emerges later, too, as the vulnerable context of a disaster gives rise to a predatory atmosphere. It is unrealistic to think that all of these problems will have a quick solution. Piercey notes, for example, that the Pro Bono Project is still dealing with contractor fraud, FEMA, and Road Home issues from the Katrina disaster.

Lesson 2: Coordination of both out-of-state and in-state volunteers is essential

The coordination of volunteers in the context of a disaster takes on its own unique set of challenges. The widespread destruction of many disasters will affect not only the client base, but the attorneys and staff in the disaster area. As Piercey explains, “Our volunteers were not available to assist as they were struggling with their own issues of restoring their homes and businesses, leaving an organization that was primarily dependent upon volunteers without its traditional base of support.”

The process of establishing special waivers to facilitate the use of out-of-state attorneys is one of the first steps in expanding pro bono efforts in the disaster context. Since Hurricane Katrina, 18 states have adopted a version of the ABA’s Model Court Rule on Provision of Legal Services Following Determination of Major Disaster 4. Both Piercey and Allen spoke about the importance of these waivers in Louisiana and Mississippi, noting that such waivers were instrumental in giving out-of-state attorneys an incentive to help by providing an avenue for connecting them with approved programs.

Another critical step in expanding pro bono efforts is broadening and adapting the coordination of delivery systems. Allen notes that adjusting resources and rethinking coordination is necessary in order to be able to “say yes” to all pro bono volunteers. Piercey notes that supporting and mentoring out-of-state volunteer attorneys meant necessarily shifting the delivery model from being simply volunteer-based to a mixture of staff attorneys and coordinators.

Lesson 3: Physically place attorneys where the people are

Both Allen and Piercey emphasize that physically placing attorneys in the locations where people in need are most likely to congregate is imperative, especially when communication technologies are not available. Setting up on-site clinics in churches, food pantries, recovery centers, and anywhere FEMA staff are located, for example, are the best ways to reach people. Part of setting up these delivery efforts will involve establishing partnerships with community organizations, for which the groundwork can be laid during the process of establishing a disaster preparedness plan. Opening up lines of communication with these community partners will help get the message across about the importance of integrating lawyers in the recovery efforts.

Lesson 4: Monitor the design of relief policies and programs

In addition to attending to the need for direct legal services, additional issues arise relating to how relief programs and policies are designed and implemented. Monitoring how funding is being distributed will necessarily be a part of ensuring fairness in the recovery process. Allen notes, “You want to have advocates keeping an eye on how these programs are designed.” For example, state grant programs for distributing benefits may include eligibility clauses that unfairly exclude specific populations. A policy that only provides benefits to homeowners with insurance, for example, will only help those of higher income backgrounds. With the support of volunteer attorneys, one post-Katrina success was the two-year moratorium on housing foreclosures, giving many people the time they needed to deal with the financial toll of the disaster.

Lesson 5: Get the message out about the importance of legal services

While many immediately think of organizations like the Red Cross as being the go-to resource for disaster relief, the need for legal services is less often considered in the disaster context. For example, virtually all forms of economic relief made available for victims of disasters will involve multiple administrative hurdles where legal representation is often required for claims and denials. In these and other similar situations, legal assistance isn’t always obvious at the front end, but early intervention makes a critical difference. Allen observes that getting the message out about the need for legal services and advocacy is an important part of attracting resources, volunteers, and funding.

Lesson 6: Be prepared

Because we never fully know when a disaster will strike, legal services providers should anticipate the worst by establishing a foundation upon which relief efforts can be based if and when necessary. Trainings to educate the attorney population can be developed for some of the more predictable legal issues, such as FEMA claims and housing. Partnerships with the access to justice community and social service agencies will be essential to any successful relief plan. Working through local bar associations, legal aid organizations, and the pro bono managers at large law firms to create a disaster plan that avoids redundancies and includes all stakeholders will be most effective. Considering the assistance provided by the ABA Young Lawyers Division hotline, too, will need to be a part of these conversations. And finally, partnering with social service agencies and other service providers is critical because, as Piercey adds, “We all have different skills and resources to bring to the table.”

Opportunities for Change

Where institutional practices are disrupted by natural disasters, opportunities for change can emerge—and these changes have the potential to have an impact even beyond the disaster context. Such changes emerging from Katrina can be seen in the continued relationships that have been maintained in the legal communities most involved, the development of new regulations and, most importantly, enhanced services to those most impacted by disasters.

The outpouring of caring in the form of volunteer time and resources in the days following Hurricane Katrina speaks to the profession’s humanity and sense of professional duty to serve those in need. What is more remarkable, however, is the extent to which the disaster relief instigated continued engagement that persists even today. Allen noted that the relief efforts gave pro bono attorneys insight into how a disaster impacts the low income population differently than higher income populations, and as a result was “a great educational and recruiting opportunity.” Many of the relationships built within the attorney community and local law firms have persisted.

The engagement of law students and young lawyers has also resulted in renewed volunteerism and continued commitment to the public good. After Katrina, many law student associates from large firms arrived to help with the relief efforts and were given opportunities to engage directly with those in need. Piercey notes the profound effect their experiences had, recalling:

. . . one young associate from a major global law firm . . . was so touched by our work. [He] said he had to do some serious thinking about his career when he returned home as all he did at his law firm job was sit in an office all day reviewing documents while here, he met clients, worked to resolve issues and even made his own copies. Basically, he did whatever was needed to help in a case and felt good about his work.          

As a result of their experiences during Katrina with law students the Pro Bono Project has created programmatic models that work for both providers and students. Continued engagement of law students has enhanced their legal education, while also expanding service capacities.

Relief efforts also have the potential to instigate regulative changes that may reach beyond the disaster context. In Louisiana, for example, collaborative experiences extended to lobbying the legislature, resulting in a change of a law for distributing estates that were valued at $75,000 or less. Successions that formerly had to go through the judicial process subsequently could proceed by affidavit stating that a “diligent effort” was made to find them. In Mississippi, the waiver that initially was meant to facilitate the integration of out-of-state attorneys to the relief effort was found to be so successful that it was eventually expanded beyond Hurricane Katrina cases.


Certainly, preparedness is essential and the foundation to any disaster plan will incorporate lessons learned from past disasters like Hurricane Katrina. But additionally, both Piercey and Allen note that each disaster has its own unique set of circumstances and challenges. Part of being prepared for a disaster involves being prepared to be flexible, innovative, and open to collaboration. Embracing creative and alternative approaches will lead to better resolutions for the problems that arise. And the relationships forged with stakeholders, both within and outside of one’s state, may lead to surprising and valuable continued interactions. Piercey eloquently summarizes:

While our mission is universal—to deliver civil legal services—our reach expanded nationally, regionally, state-wide and locally as legal services providers collaborated. This aspect served to boost spirits in many ways and it was both rewarding and exhilarating to work in an environment that provided such increased opportunities and resources to assist our broken community.


[1] See Eric Bake and Ethan Gibney, The Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense United States Tropical Cyclones from 1851 to 2010 (and other frequently requested hurricane facts). NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS NHC-6, August 2011

[2] See

[3] See

[4] See the chart “State Implementation of ABA Model Court Rule on Provision of Legal Services Following Determination of Major Disaster

April Faith-Slaker

Staff Attorney, Standing Committee for Pro Bono & Public Service


April Faith-Slaker is a staff attorney for the Standing Committee for Pro Bono & Public Service. She also serves as the Director of the Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives.