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District Reps Learn How to Respond When Disaster Strikes

Kara Johnson

It seems like severe weather has caused disasters all over the country lately. When a major disaster happens, what can lawyers do to help their communities? Lawyers can be a major asset for their communities as volunteers with Disaster Legal Services.

What Is Disaster Legal Services?

Disaster Legal Services (DLS) is a program that was developed and is operated jointly by the ABA Young Lawyers Division and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). When the President of the United States declares a “major disaster,” as defined under the Stafford Act, an evaluation is made by FEMA whether individual assistance is needed for disaster survivors in addition to community assistance. If individual assistance is triggered, one type that is offered is DLS.

DLS is a program designed to provide pro bono legal services to disaster survivors. These legal services are coordinated by FEMA and the ABA YLD through ABA YLD District Representatives (DRs).

How Does It Work?

Each young lawyer organization that is affiliated with the ABA YLD has a DR responsible for its area. The DRs act as the conduit between FEMA, the ABA YLD, and the state and local bar associations for the implementation of Disaster Legal Services.

When FEMA and the ABA YLD determine individual assistance is triggered, David Nguyen, the ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services Director, is contacted by the FEMA representative responsible for the area where the disaster occurred. A member of the ABA Disaster Legal Services Team then contacts the appropriate ABA YLD DR.

After the DR is contacted, that person works with state and local bar associations to set up a 1-800 hotline for DLS, find people to staff the hotline, and recruit volunteer attorneys to handle the pro bono legal services. The DR also develops plans for how referrals to the volunteer attorneys will be handled, how intakes will be conducted, develops press releases and flyers, and reports to FEMA officials on the assistance provided through DLS.

The DR is also put directly in touch with the FEMA representative who will be working with the DR regarding DLS. The DR is responsible for keeping FEMA informed about the details of how DLS is being coordinated in that particular disaster area. The DR also receives the Letter of Intent from FEMA, which is the official indication that FEMA intends to provide funding, usually up to $5,000, for the hard costs associated with implementing the DLS program.

DLS continues in the disaster area until calls on the DLS hotline slow down and the DR, FEMA, and the ABA YLD determine that it may be shut down. After it is discontinued, final tallies for the legal services provided are sent by the DR to the ABA YLD and FEMA.

Do the DRs Receive Training?

Yes, the DRs receive training. They are not just thrown into this responsibility. It is something they knowingly take on as part of their position. The DRs are trained at the beginning of their two-year term by FEMA representatives. This year, the incoming DRs underwent DLS training at the ABA headquarters in Chicago on June 10 and 11. As part of the training, the DRs are put through a mock disaster exercise so they will be prepared to handle DLS responsibilities if a disaster strikes their area.

The DRs in each respective district also likely have a written plan for their district to provide guidance for handling their responsibilities. A written plan is particularly beneficial for a district if there are several bar associations in the area that may want to become involved. Affiliated organizations should check in with their DR about whether a written policy for their district exists and whether they can provide assistance to update the current policy or draft a new one.

So Practically Speaking, What Happens When DLS Is Triggered?

I have had personal experience with starting DLS after a major disaster. In addition to being an editor of The Affiliate, I serve as the DR for District 21, which includes North Dakota and South Dakota. As of this writing, DLS has just been implemented for five counties in North Dakota.

In May and June, flooding occurred in North Dakota because of a late snow melt in the mountains in Montana and Canada. On May 10, 2011, the President declared a major disaster in North Dakota for flooding. At that time, the Missouri River was reaching levels in Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota, that were only expected during a 500-year flood. FEMA provided community assistance, but initially denied individual assistance because of the relatively small number of people and homes that would be affected after dikes were built. FEMA’s decision was appealed and individual assistance was approved in two counties in south central North Dakota.

The Souris (or Mouse) River, which runs through Minot, North Dakota, also experienced significant flooding. This flood reached higher flooding levels than had previously been experienced from the Souris River in over 50 years. In addition, unlike the Missouri River flooding, the onset of the Souris River flooding was quick and the water levels were unexpected. The pictures from this flood were the topic of national news. Individual assistance was approved for three additional counties in north central North Dakota as a result of this flood.

After the President’s major disaster declaration, I spoke with David Nguyen several times about the possibility of individual assistance being granted in North Dakota. I also participated in a couple of conference calls between the State Bar Association of North Dakota Young Lawyers Section and Legal Services of North Dakota, which would both become involved when DLS was triggered in North Dakota. These calls were intended to ensure that each group knew its role in the process and to work out any potential problems before DLS got underway.

When FEMA approved individual assistance, David called me and let me know that FEMA was in the process of drafting the Letter of Intent. I then relayed the information to the other participating groups and the hotline got started. Afterward, I corresponded and spoke with the FEMA field representative several times to get answers to questions that the North Dakota organizations had about the process and to ensure that North Dakota’s process was compliant with FEMA’s expectations.

At the current time, North Dakota is getting a press release distributed about the DLS hotline. The organizations involved are also gathering information for its first report to the ABA YLD and FEMA. North Dakota will continue its efforts to get a successful DLS program implemented and will be further along in the process when this article goes to print.