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How your peers are helping disaster survivors

Andrew VanSingel

In August 1969, Hurricane Camille ripped through the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall in Waveland, Miss., as a Category 5 hurricane. At the time, it was only the second Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the United States. Camille destroyed nearly every structure along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, killing 239 people and causing nearly $10 billion in damages.

The Mississippi Bar’s Young Lawyer Section took immediate action by creating a Disaster Relief Committee—the first of its kind—to provide free legal assistance to disaster survivors. After Camille, it became obvious to the American Bar Association and its Young Lawyers Division that a national organization assisting with disaster response, recovery, and preparedness could be of great assistance to state and local programs. In 1973, the ABA YLD and the Office of Emergency Preparedness— the modern-day equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency—executed a formal agreement outlining the delivery of legal services to disaster survivors.

Forty-five years later, disasters continue to affect communities on a local and even regional scale. In the past two years alone, the Disaster Legal Services program responded to 41 natural disasters across the United States and its territories.

Lawyers play an important role in post-disaster recovery. Often, people think of food, water, and shelter as the only needs after a disaster. However, legal issues also arise soon after the incident. Disasters don’t discriminate, but it should come as no surprise that disasters hit the poor the hardest.

Since many problems arising from a disaster have a legal solution, access to free legal services is an imperative factor in giving the poor a fighting chance at recovery.

Today, federal disaster law is codified in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1998. Through the Stafford Act, FEMA is mandated to provide disaster legal services at no cost to individuals who have insufficient means to obtain legal assistance. The ABA YLD, through its Memorandum of Understanding with FEMA, serves as the exclusive coordinator of those services.

Over the years, the program has evolved from providing legal information and advice into a program that provides a full range of assistance in a variety of civil legal services, such as pursuing claims against insurance companies, landlords, contractors, FEMA, and other agencies. It also does such work as helping survivors clear title to their homes, replace vital documents, and create such important documents as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.

Through the DLS program, thousands of new lawyers provide free legal advice and representation to hundreds of thousands of disaster survivors in the United States and its territories. Although DLS is the touchstone public service program of the ABA YLD, many non−YLD attorneys, paralegals, and law students devote a significant amount of time to ensure the success of this program.

How students help after disasters

Law students have a long history of helping disaster survivors. Probably the most notable effort in this area is the response after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. After Katrina, a handful of law students affected by the hurricane created the Student Hurricane Network, which existed from 2005 to 2010 to help coordinate nearly 5,500 law students from 110 law schools to help with the legal needs in New Orleans. For half a decade, law students would commonly go to New Orleans as an “alternative spring break” or other short duration to perform legal work in the community.

After Superstorm Sandy, Touro College—Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center created a help center designed to provide legal advice and information to those impacted by the storm. Touro’s help center evolved into a full-service disaster clinic—one of the first of its kind—that operated from 2012 to 2019. Touro’s clinic not only had involvement from its staff and students but also more than 120 law students from six countries.

Today, only a handful of law schools across the country offer a course in disaster law. Pepperdine University School of Law offers such a course and also operates a disaster clinic. Travis Beck is a third-year student at Pepperdine and is currently enrolled in the disaster clinic. As a Seattle native, Beck never dealt with disasters before coming to California for law school. In November 2018, during Beck’s second year of law school, the Woolsey Fire forced him to evacuate from his home for more than a week.

“Although I was only evacuated, some of my friends and their families lost their homes,” said Beck. “After that experience, I knew I had to do something to help.”

The following summer, Beck began volunteering in Pepperdine’s newly formed Disaster Relief Clinic, which was created to help California fire survivors. Beck continued working in the clinic through the Fall 2019 semester and is concurrently enrolled in the school’s disaster law course.

Beck is joined by seven other Pepperdine law students who spend their time in the clinic on a wide variety of legal issues that arise due to fi re damage. Beck stated that students are paired together to work a handful of cases, most of which are worked in-house. If the issues are outside the scope of the clinic, the client gets referred to a pro bono attorney.

One of the most common issues was assisting homeowners with the permitting process. Since many homes predated many of the city of Malibu’s building restrictions, homeowners face significant challenges in rebuilding, even if it’s only to rebuild to what they had prior to the fire.

Beck explained that the assistance of an advocate is central to the recovery process. “What sticks out is how unprepared some people can be for a disaster and what to do in the aftermath,” he explained. “A lot of the clients we work with aren’t lawyers, and they don’t understand the process—they just want to get back to normal. They’re overwhelmed and just want someone to help them.”

Not all cases had a happy ending. But even when hearing bad news, clients have been appreciative and, in some cases, relieved they have closure and can move on.

What you can do

Perhaps Beck’s work in this area has prompted you to ask how you can get involved in the area of disaster law. If your school offers a disaster course or clinic, the answer is easy.

However, most law students won’t have the ability to engage in this work through their law school. But don’t despair— opportunities are still available.

If you’re located in a disaster area, volunteering can be relatively easy to coordinate. But first, you may be interested to see what the needs are after a disaster.

In the immediate aftermath, volunteers are needed to talk to survivors in shelters. This is the easiest type of volunteer work to do, with the lowest time commitment.

Volunteers are typically giving legal information directly to survivors or providing fact sheets and other relevant flyers.

Law students can make a big impact during this phase because they may be able to provide scale to the partnering organization’s efforts. For example, a few law students can accompany a seasoned disaster lawyer in a shelter and help triage and interview survivors and provide general intake information to the attorney.

In the weeks after a federally declared disaster, FEMA will open disaster recovery centers, which are designed as one-stop-shops for disaster survivors. They’re staffed by numerous federal and state agencies as well as nonprofit organizations.

The work here is similar to work in shelters, except some of the hypothetical legal issues are now materializing, and survivors need legal advice or representation rather than “know your rights” information. Some of the earliest legal issues that arise at this phase are landlord-tenant matters.

Long-term volunteers are needed to complete the more complex legal work that arises after a disaster, such as clearing title to property, handling insurance claims, and appealing FEMA denials. Although it sounds daunting, and all too reminiscent of an appellate brief, many law students can work in this area under the supervision of an experienced attorney. Don’t let the word appeal scare you away. Some of the easier appeals are more akin to fighting a parking ticket than arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

To be candid, students who aren’t local face a much more challenging path to volunteering; however, it’s not impossible. Because of the significant need to prepare FEMA appeals, which can be done remotely under the supervision of an attorney, you can often find this type of work as a way of contributing.

You can also provide other technical support, such as making callbacks to survivors, translating documents, or conducting research. If you speak a second language or have a unique skill to offer, make sure you discuss it when you’re speaking with your proposed sponsoring organization.

Practical tips in volunteering

Here are some general rules for succeeding and getting the most out of this volunteer work.

Get trained. You must appreciate the chaos that can come with providing legal services after a disaster. It truly is an “all hands on deck” approach. Many organizations that are providing disaster relief aren’t likely in a position to give intensive one-on-one mentoring to law students. Instead, take the initiative to learn about the subject matter through various self-study resources. There are many free resources online that can help you get up to speed on the topic quickly.

We recommend visiting the following online resources:

Coming to an organization with a general understanding of the subject matter will make it much easier for you to find a place to get involved.

Be accountable. Once you have a basic understanding of the subject matter, reach out to the DLS director to see where the need exists. The director can connect you with programs currently responding to a federally declared disaster.

When reaching out, give thought to what your commitment can be. How long are you looking to volunteer—a few weeks, a semester, or longer? If you’re a recent graduate looking to volunteer until you find a job, will you continue to work on the matter until it’s resolved, or will you ghost us (not cool in dating or in volunteering) when you find a job?

Be realistic about your ability to volunteer. After a disaster, everyone wants to help, and many lawyers, paralegals, and law students sign up. The sudden influx of volunteer interest can be a disaster in itself since many programs don’t have the capacity to scale a large number of volunteers at once. Sadly, only a fraction of those who sign up to volunteer follow through.

Be proactive. If this area of law interests you, talk to your law school dean about having the school offer a course in disaster law. Gaining theoretical and practical knowledge in this area during law school could provide you with a competitive advantage if you’re seeking a rewarding career helping disaster survivors.

Many legal aid organizations, especially those in disaster-prone areas (such as California, Texas, Florida, and the Carolinas), often have a dedicated attorney who works exclusively on disaster-related matters. Other organizations offer shorter opportunities, such as the Equal Justice Works Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, which places recent graduates in two-year fellowships with host organizations to provide disaster relief work.

With the right amount of planning and persistence, any law student can get practical experience in this area of law.