Disaster Legal Services May Be Needed in Your Backyard. Here’s How You Can Help

Andrew VanSingel and Elí Salomón Contreras
Responding to natural disasters such as Harvey and Irma requires significant coordinated efforts at the local, state, and federal levels.

Responding to natural disasters such as Harvey and Irma requires significant coordinated efforts at the local, state, and federal levels.

Michelmond via Shutterstock

Watch a non-CLE free webinar replay that will take you through the step-by-step process of what triggers the Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program, how the program is implemented, and what that looks like on the back-end. The speakers will also take a closer look at the current federal restrictions on the DLS program in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and discuss how states can implement their own state-wide COVID-19 hotline. 

In early August, gusts of wind pushed westward through the Sahara Desert. Three weeks later, the gusts transformed to one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the United States since Hurricane Charley in 2004. At its peak, Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain and 15–20 million gallons of water on Texas, making it one of the most devastating natural disasters in America’s history. In its wake, Harvey destroyed thousands of homes and displaced many more, including the nearly 50 thousand who sought shelter throughout Texas and Louisiana. A week later, an equally menacing Irma decimated many islands in the Caribbean, including the US Territories of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, before hitting Florida.

Responding to natural disasters such as Harvey and Irma requires significant coordinated efforts at the local, state, and federal levels as disaster survivors’ needs are great and varied. These needs include medical aid, temporary shelter, rescue operations, and legal services, among others.

Although legal services may not be thought of as the first or most pressing need that comes to mind when thinking of disaster survivors, legal needs arise. Immediately after a disaster, many survivors have questions pertaining to their housing or employment, such as what their obligations may be to pay rent if their apartment is flooded, or whether an employer can fire one for missing work during a disaster. Other questions arise regarding the availability of assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Individuals and Households Program (IHP), which may provide immediate funds for critical needs, disaster unemployment benefits, and housing vouchers. Long-term legal needs exist as well, which include appeals of denied FEMA claims, disputes with insurance companies, as well as consumer claims.

The Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (YLD) exists to respond to the unmet legal needs that arise after disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Through a partnership with FEMA, the ABA, and Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the YLD provides disaster legal services to low-income disaster survivors following a presidentially declared “major disaster” as defined in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Through its agreement, the YLD has the sole and complete authority to coordinate and manage the delivery of legal services to disaster survivors. The program is also responsible for providing training to YLD representatives regarding their obligations to coordinate delivery of legal services to disaster survivors, coordinating the mobilization of participating attorneys to provide free legal services to low-income disaster survivors, and reporting the number and types of cases participating attorneys handle.

In practice, one of YLD’s first steps in responding to a major disaster is to collaborate with those in the community tasked with providing legal assistance (e.g., state and local bar associations, legal aid agencies, and social service providers) to ensure that everyone works together, not duplicating efforts. Next, a toll-free hotline is set up for people to call with legal questions, followed by a press release explaining the DLS program and listing the partnering organizations. The delivery of legal services can be different across the country. For example, in Texas, the State Bar of Texas maintains the hotline that directs callers to their respective LSC (legal aid) grantee. If eligible, the grantee will represent the individual. If a person does not qualify for legal services, or if the legal agency is at capacity, the person will be referred to a private attorney who will represent the individual at no cost. Florida handles the hotline slightly differently, as callers will talk to the Florida Bar directly, which then directs the caller to a volunteer attorney.

Significantly, YLD’s work in coordinating disaster legal services is ongoing and at times overlaps between or among disasters. In 2017, YLD has coordinated disaster legal services in 10 states or territories, including, in order of implementation: Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Michigan, West Virginia, Texas, USVI, Puerto Rico, and Florida.

With major disasters occurring across the country, you can use your legal skills to help disaster survivors. Here is what you can do:

  • Be proactive, not reactive. Do not wait for another disaster to occur. Educate yourself on FEMA benefits, specifically, ones administered through its Individuals & Households Program (available on FEMA’s website) or attend trainings on issues impacting disaster survivors.
  • Get involved with your local affiliate or local legal aid agency. After educating yourself on legal issues affecting disaster survivors, reach out to your local affiliate or legal aid agency and design disaster legal services and preparedness programming.
  • Volunteer. Reach out to your LSC grantee and volunteer your time with legal aid. Many of the issues affecting disaster survivors, such as housing, employment, and public benefits, affect low-income individuals before a disaster strikes as well.

Andrew VanSingel

Andrew VanSingel is the YLD’s Disaster Legal Services Program director. 

Elí Salomón Contreras

Elí Salomón Contreras is an attorney licensed in California.