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Providing Legal Services to Victims of National Disasters

Amy Osteryoung

What lurks behind the fury of a natural disaster? The answer is rather simple, destruction and despair. The American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD), recognizing the problems everyone face from potential natural disasters, has been providing legal aid to places and people all over the United States when and where needed.

Disasters Happen

No matter how advanced we become as a society, dangers from mother nature will always threaten. In any given year, natural disasters account for billions of dollars in damages and the loss of many lives. Damages from hurricanes are soaring off the charts, bankrupting insurance companies and depriving property owners of insurance in high-risk areas. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), during the 1960s windstorms causing more than $1 billion in economic losses accounted for a total $4 billion in damages. In the 1970s the figure rose to $7 billion, and in the 1980s it topped $24 billion. By the 1990s, losses from damages caused by hurricanes soared to $113 billion. Then during the six years from 2000 to 2005, hurricanes left a staggering bill of $273 billion in their wake. Because of these ever-increasing costs and the legal problems that ensue after a storm passes, an obvious question presented itself: how could the ABA YLD help the victims of natural disasters? Given the skills of ABA YLD members and the legal problems that arise in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the inevitable result was the creation of Disaster Legal Services (DLS).

Since the 1970s, the ABA YLD has provided DLS to victims of major disasters. Today, the Robert T. Stafford Act gives FEMA the authority to provide federally funded DLS. The goal of DLS is to provide disaster victims free, quality, timely, and efficient legal help.

How DLS Works

The DLS program is implemented under a memorandum of understanding between the ABA YLD and FEMA. When a major disaster strikes, the governor of the affected jurisdiction can request that the president declare a major disaster under the Stafford Act. When such a declaration is made, FEMA evaluates the need for DLS, and if it determines that DLS is necessary, FEMA will call on the ABA YLD for help.

On notification, the ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services team coordinates with the ABA YLD District Representative of the affected jurisdiction to deliver DLS. Under the DLS program, legal services are available to any individual who does not have the resources to secure adequate legal representation, even if that individual had adequate resources before the disaster.

The basic and most important component of a DLS operation is a toll-free legal services hotline. The DLS hotline is typically staffed by volunteer attorneys who answer callers’ basic legal questions and who conduct intake interviews to connect callers with volunteer attorneys who have agreed to provide pro bono representation. In large disasters, volunteer attorneys may staff disaster recovery centers to provide on-site legal assistance to victims. Legal assistance is available in a variety of practice areas, including consumer law, FEMA benefits, insurance law, and landlord-tenant law, to name a few.

Young Lawyers to the Rescue

According to Disaster Legal Services Vice-Director Matthew Besmer, since 2006, DLS has operated in thirty-two states serving more than 75,000 disaster victims. DLS operations are currently active in Louisiana in response to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, in Texas also because of Ike, and in Florida because of Hurricane Fay.

District Representatives maintain a list of attorneys who are willing to volunteer to participate in a DLS response. In addition, according to Besmer, District Representatives work with state and local bar associations to ensure DLS plans are in place. State and local bar associations are critical to operating toll-free legal services hotlines and to providing a platform to identify volunteer attorneys to work in the DLS program. During disasters many law firms offer infrastructure and administrative support to operate toll-free hotlines and to conduct intake to route disaster victims to volunteer attorneys.