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Unprecedented Number of Disasters Keep Young Lawyers Busy

David H.K. Nguyen

Since the beginning of the bar year, the federal government has declared 13 disasters in 11 states. Disasters resulting from flooding, forest fires, hurricanes, and tropical storms have kept ABA YLD District Representatives busy implementing Disaster Legal Services (DLS)—a partnership program between the ABA YLD and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide pro bono legal services to disaster survivors. States that usually do not experience natural disasters are busy this year. Since September 1, DLS has been implemented in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont.

Not all federally declared disasters receive funding for DLS implementation. Once a FEMA representative assesses the situation on the ground and finds that disaster survivors would benefit from pro bono legal services, FEMA contacts the ABA YLD. The DLS team assists District Representatives implement DLS.

Hurricane Irene hit the United States in late August 2011. It was a large and powerful hurricane that struck the Caribbean, the U.S. East Coast, and traveled as far north as Atlantic Canada. Hurricane Irene was responsible for damage in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. District Representatives Kristen Blanchette, Alena Shautsova, Blake Laurence, Michael Wells, Jr., Marla Presley, and Thomas Marczak, respectively, have been gracious with volunteering their time to assist in setting up disaster hotlines in their states. Pennsylvania and New York were also affected by Tropical Storm Lee shortly thereafter.

Severe storms, tornadoes, and flooding have been disastrous for America’s heartland and have damaged property, dislocated families, and ruined farmlands in Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota. District Representatives Carl Frazier, Jason Sengheiser, Bob Gainer, and Kara Johnson, respectively, have been working with local bar associations and legal aid organizations to house disaster hotlines and recruit volunteer lawyers to assist disaster survivors. Anita Barksdale has been working tirelessly to assist in implementing DLS in Texas where vast wildfires have been devastating in recent months.

The countless hours put in by ABA YLD District Representatives help disaster survivors navigate the legal system when legal issues arise after a crippling disaster. During these times of need, survivors focus on their financial resources and concentrate on rebuilding their lives and getting themselves back to normal. The pro bono legal services provided by volunteer attorneys help remove burdensome worries and solve many legal complications that survivors face when dealing with insurance companies and other third parties. It is just one of the numerous benefits provided by FEMA.

The DLS team and ABA YLD District Representatives implement these DLS hotlines with assistance from local Affiliates and legal aid organizations. In many instances, local Affiliates have worked closely with District Representatives in housing the hotline and assisting with recruiting volunteer attorneys. Because some District Representatives live in states removed from the disaster and have to implement from afar, cooperation from Affiliates is crucial. For example, Kara Johnson, DR for South Dakota and North Dakota, lives and practices law in North Dakota. While running a disaster hotline triggered by flash flooding in North Dakota this summer, FEMA also activated DLS in South Dakota. Kara sought assistance from the State Bar of South Dakota, which housed the hotline and recruited volunteer lawyers. In Massachusetts, DR Kristen Blanchette from New Hampshire worked closely with the Hampden County Bar Association and Western Massachusetts Legal Services to set up disaster hotlines this year. Cooperation among Affiliates and the District Representatives is highly important to the success of this partnership program between the ABA YLD and FEMA.

Because Mother Nature seems to bring more surprises every year, it is important for District Representatives and Affiliates to be prepared and ready to react to the needs of disaster survivors and the implementation of DLS. This is a long-standing ABA YLD program that has helped survivors rebuild their lives after horrendous events. Its success is heavily dependent on the cooperation of Affiliates, local bar associations, local legal aid organizations, and volunteer attorneys. If your organization is interested in assisting with current or potential disasters, please contact the DLS Director or ABA YLD Staff Liaison. Contact information can be found on the DLS webpage. Your assistance and interest is much appreciated to help our neighbors and communities recover after such tragic events.