March 01, 2013

Witness a Volunteer Spirit: Young Lawyers Respond to Hurricane Sandy

David H.K. Nguyen

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit one of the most densely populated regions of the United States. The recovery process has begun and will continue for several years. Since October, the outpouring of support towards those affected has been astounding, and young lawyers have been intimately involved. Because of the ABA Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program, disaster survivors have been receiving pro bono legal advice through legal hotlines housed with ABA YLD Affiliates and in face-to-face sessions held at FEMA disaster recovery centers (DRC). Because of Superstorm Sandy’s immense impact and its tragic aftermath, the ABA YLD DLS Team toured the area twice to participate in volunteer attorney training, meet with FEMA and bar association counterparts, and visit disaster recovery centers. During our trips, the volunteers and survivors we met and spoke to, the things we saw, and the spirit we felt, all exhibited ABA members’ and the legal profession’s continued commitment to serve those most in need.

Disaster Legal Services

Disaster Legal Services is a partnership program administered by the ABA Young Lawyers Division with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. DLS also works closely with the Legal Services Corporation and the ABA Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness. When a natural disaster calls for federal assistance, FEMA makes an assessment to determine if DLS is needed. Typically, DLS is initiated, and the DLS Team works through the state ABA YLD District Representative (DR) to implement a pro bono legal hotline. All District Representatives participate in intensive and comprehensive half-day disaster preparedness training. The pro bono legal hotline is often set up in collaboration with state or local bar associations and sometimes with local legal aid organizations or law firms. The hotline is widely publicized, and volunteer attorneys are on standby to handle various legal issues posed by disaster survivors. Volunteer attorneys cannot accept fee generating cases, however, and as a result, these cases are referred to the local lawyer referral service.

Sandy Disaster Response

Almost 500 volunteer attorneys have responded to the legal service demands created by Hurricane Sandy. Alena Shautsova, Dana Hrelic, and Blake Laurence, the DRs for New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, respectively, worked with the New York State Bar Association, the Connecticut Bar Association, and the New Jersey State Bar Association, respectively, to setup DLS hotlines in each state shortly after Sandy hit. FEMA initiated DLS for Maryland in January 2013, and DR Regine Francois was able to implement DLS with the Maryland State Bar Association. NYSBA and NJSBA organized CLE programs to train attorneys on the various benefits and services available from state and federal agencies and to provide tips to help counsel disaster survivors.

The New York DLS hotline has received almost 2,000 calls as of the end of January 2013, and the DLS team and FEMA have been in touch with Fordham and Touro Law Schools to explore additional outreach beyond the DLS hotlines. In New York, many groups are providing legal services, such as area law schools, legal aid organizations, and other nonprofit organizations, to meet the vast needs of those most vulnerable. The New Jersey hotline is served by the New Jersey State Bar Association through a collaboration with Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ) and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ) of New Jersey. The hotline has netted over a thousand calls. While volunteer attorneys with the NJSBA take calls from the hotline, staff and volunteer attorneys with LSNJ and VLJ provide advice to survivors in the disaster recovery centers. The collaborative efforts in New York and New Jersey have been critical to the DLS response in serving the most vulnerable.


In November 2012, on the first DLS trip to the region, I served as a panelist for a CLE program, volunteered at a bulk distribution site for the American Red Cross, and visited an American Red Cross operations center, disaster recovery centers in both Connecticut and New York, the FEMA joint field office in Queens, New York, and disaster sites on Staten Island and Rockaway Beach, New York.

The recovery process was only a few weeks old when I was there, and some debris lying in the streets had not yet been removed. In a Staten Island neighborhood I visited, houses were knocked off their foundations and slammed into their neighbors. Collapsed walls left roofs with no support and lying on the ground. Other houses sat wide open and empty with blown out windows. Cars and boats lay in streets, in yards, and on porches—resting places where the powerful storm had thrown them. Houses were bereft of families, and restaurants were no longer occupied by patrons. Crews started early each day to get the recovery efforts going, but there were signs more workers were needed to rebuild this destroyed neighborhood. Nearby, an American Red Cross distribution center and the Boy Scouts of America distributed hot food to survivors and workers. Utility workers were working tirelessly around the clock to restore electricity and water to area homes.

When I toured the American Red Cross operations center in New York City with colleague, Paula Clamurro, Regional Disaster Services Human Resources Coordinator for Greater Los Angeles, staff was working diligently to help volunteers register, find temporary housing, and meet the needs of local survivors, as well as making sure the needs of volunteers coming from all parts of the country were being met. The operations center was humming with volunteers and staff coming in and out talking about the Red Cross coordination. Baggage of volunteers just arrived as well as those soon to return home was stacked along walls. I registered myself to volunteer to pass out food to survivors at a bulk distribution center later that week. While touring the operations center, I could see that without the Red Cross staff and volunteers from all over the United States coming together, the response would have been much more limited. These folks committed countless hours, day in and day out, while living out of a hotel and eating whatever food was available, to help others.

Coming Together

The DLS Team toured Disaster Recovery Centers throughout Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC) are locations set up by both the state and FEMA for survivors to come and seek assistance. Representatives from the Small Business Administration, Disaster Unemployment Assistance, housing, and other agencies are there to direct survivors to the help they need to get back on track. Pro bono attorneys are providing advice at DRCs in both New York and New Jersey. Throughout our tour, many DRC managers expressed the need for, and their gratitude to, attorneys providing free legal advice.

On the way to Rockaway Beach, we came across a mobile DRC site being staged in the parking lot of a local VFW. Housed in a temporary trailer and a FEMA RV, it was crowded with applicants. Inside the VFW, students from Fordham University were preparing to load a van with food and supplies to be distributed in the hardest hit neighborhoods. Fordham Law students and faculty also set up a legal aid site to assist survivors with their legal needs. Questions ranged from landlord-tenant issues to reapplying for lost identification cards, such as driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, and work IDs. This DRC site has been re-located inside the VFW building after volunteers were able to make it accessible to the disabled. We also visited a DRC in Rockaway Beach, set up under tents in a parking lot of a local grocery store.

While touring these sites, volunteering, and meeting with people, we could feel the spirit in people’s faces and voices. It was upbeat, encouraging, and excited to be able to lend a helping hand. The numerous rows of American Red Cross disaster relief trucks, each from a different city, illustrated a nation coming together from near and far to help fellow citizens. FEMA employees work seven days a week around the clock, most from other states and many sacrificing family and personal interests, to respond to the needs of survivors.

Witness a Volunteer Sprit

Steve Becker, FEMA DLS specialist, who also worked on the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf region, stated that the destruction of Hurricane Sandy is “much worse.” Many times we see and hear of the terrible and sad conditions a natural disaster leaves in its wake. The loss of personal belongings and family treasures that can never be replaced leaves a hole in every survivor’s heart. The struggles to find shelter, power, and food can strain the most steadfast patience. And the difficulties of recovering after a disaster can put those already in a bad place over the edge. But even in the midst of the destruction and terrible aftermath of Sandy, we were able to witness and experience a volunteer spirit that overcame all boundaries—state, race, class—as people stepped up to help rebuild and respond to their neighbors’ needs.

To the FEMA employees who work around the clock seven days a week and live out of hotels away from their families; to the Red Cross staff and volunteers traveling from far and near, living out of shelters, and working endless hours; to the ABA YLD District Representatives and hundreds of volunteer attorneys and law students taking time away from their law practices and studies to help provide pro bono legal services to those who need it most—THANK YOU!

For more information and to volunteer, please visit Upcoming articles will include stories of survivors and volunteer attorneys. Stay tuned.

David H.K. Nguyen

David H.K. Nguyen is Director of ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services, a practicing attorney in Indianapolis, Indiana, specializing in business, family, and immigration law, and a Ph.D. candidate in higher education finance policy at Indiana University–Bloomington.