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Free Legal Assistance to Natural Disaster Survivors

Katie Crebo

When a natural disaster like a tornado or flood strikes, survivors need to attend to real and personal property issues and health, financial, and employment matters that the natural disaster may have affected. For people who are financially in need, this can be a daunting task.

FEMA/ABA YLD 1978 Memorandum of Understanding

To fill this need, the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1978. This understanding created the Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program to provide pro bono disaster legal services to survivors.

The memorandum requires the ABA YLD to provide pro bono disaster legal services to low-income survivors of a federally declared disaster when FEMA asks it to do so. DLS is not automatically activated in a declared disaster; FEMA must request the service. The relevant FEMA Regional Director where the disaster occurs determines whether DLS will be needed.

From Disaster Declaration to DLS Implementation

When a disaster strikes, the state’s governor requests the president to declare the area a major disaster. The president’s disaster declaration triggers implementation of certain individual assistance programs. With this implementation, FEMA can decide to invoke the Memorandum of Understanding and require the ABA YLD to provide disaster legal services. FEMA and the ABA YLD are the primary partners in the DLS program as outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding.

Once FEMA requests DLS, a FEMA representative contacts a member of the DLS Team. The DLS member then contacts the relevant ABA YLD District Representative. The District Representative, in turn, contacts leaders of the state and local bar associations, local legal aid groups, and local law firms to implement the state’s disaster legal service plan.

DLS is entirely a volunteer program in which the District Representative is responsible for coordinating the setup of the hotline, recruiting volunteers to manage hotline calls, recruiting volunteers to manage walk-ins at the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC), and assisting disaster victims so their legal needs can be met. DLS can be delivered via a hotline, onsite at a DRC, or both. At the DRC or through the hotline, disaster survivors can connect with an attorney.

Establishing the Hotline

Disaster Legal Services hotlines are critical to enable survivors in need to reach a volunteer attorney who can help. District Representatives accept responsibility to recruit volunteer attorneys to staff the hotline. When District Representatives live far from the disaster, local affiliates work closely with the District Representative to establish the hotline. Cooperation with affiliates is crucial.

For example, District Representative Kara Johnson ran the disaster hotline triggered by the North Dakota flooding in 2011. When FEMA also activated DLS in South Dakota, Kara relied on assistance from the South Dakota Young Lawyers Section and the State Bar of South Dakota to house the hotline and recruit volunteer lawyers because she was located far from the disaster. See Kara Johnson, Disaster Legal Services: District Reps Learn How to Respond When Disaster Strikes, The Affiliate, Sept./Oct. 2011, at 8.

In addition, ABA YLD District Representatives were instrumental in setting up a hotline after Hurricane Irene in late August 2011. Hurricane Irene caused damage in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. The responding ABA YLD District Representatives in these states were vital to setting up disaster hotlines. See David Nguyen, Disaster Legal Services: Unprecedented Number of Disasters Keep Young Lawyers Busy, The Affiliate, Jan./Feb. 2012, at 1.

How Does the Hotline Work?

FEMA publicizes a toll-free number for low-income survivors throughout the disaster area. An intake operator answers survivors’ initial telephone calls and assesses the issues to determine whether the survivor needs to consult a volunteer attorney. The operator forwards the intake forms to volunteer attorneys who connect with the survivors within 24–48 hours.

States that have had to establish disaster legal hotlines to respond to the survivors of disasters include North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Alabama, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and North Dakota. Hotlines are currently active in Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. See the Disaster Legal Hotlines page for more information about hotlines that are currently active.

In What Practice Areas Are Volunteer Attorneys Needed?

Examples of disaster-related legal matters with which volunteer attorneys help survivors of natural disasters include bankruptcy, civil rights, consumer rights, criminal, employment, family, federal assistance/FEMA, immigration, insurance, landlord/tenant, real estate/mortgage, and succession/wills/Power of Attorney. 

Additional Information Regarding DLS

In addition to Kara Johnson’s and David Nguyen’s articles above, check out the following articles for more details on DLS’s recent work: Sam Edmunds, Disaster Legal Services: Managing Disasters from Afar, The Affiliate, Mar./Apr. 2012, at 8, and Latasha McCray, When Disaster Hits: Disaster Legal Services, The Affiliate, July/Aug. 2011, at 8.