After a disaster, emergency responders work around the clock to get things back to normal. For many, this happens in short order. “Ninety-five percent of Houston is open for business” proclaimed Mayor Sylvester Turner a week after the storm. But others face a different reality. “Four months after Hurricane Michael thousands still homeless in Florida” was a recent headline from the Associated Press.
During the past year, hundreds of attorneys have provided thousands of hours of pro bono assistance to disaster survivors. The type of assistance ran the gamut of providing legal information in shelters, giving advice at pop-up legal clinics, fielding calls on disaster hotlines and engaging in extended representation for more complicated matters.
Kristen Fiore is one of more than 400 pro bono attorneys in Florida that helped survivors after Hurricane Michael. Fiore is a partner at Akerman LLP in Tallahassee, Florida, and spent considerable time talking to survivors referred by the Florida Bar’s disaster hotline.
“Once you get a lawyer involved, people on the other side will say, ‘ok, I realize I’m not being reasonable,’” says Fiore, “in many cases, it does not take much more than a phone call to help.”
Fiore recalls one case where a renter was trying to remain in his damaged but livable apartment until his lease ended in two months. The landlord gave the renter seven days to vacate (presumably to re-rent the unit at a premium after the hurricane, which is a common tactic after disasters). Fiore helped the client draft a letter over the phone. When that did not work, the renter called Fiore back, which prompted her to talk to the landlord directly, and soon after, the landlord had a change of heart.
In California, Laura Willis Benson had a similar experience. Benson is an associate at Perkins Coie in San Francisco, California, and began her involvement by participating in a day clinic in Chico with legal aid attorneys from Legal Services of Northern California. Benson spent most of her day helping an elderly couple replace estate planning documents destroyed during the fires.
“You would think estate planning would be the last thing this couple cared about because of all of the other issues they were dealing with; however, at the end of the clinic, the man started tearing up and hugged me. They were so appreciative to have someone listen to them and help them,” explained Benson.
Not every case has a happy ending though. For attorney Martha Bradley, volunteering exposed her to the compounding problems of people who do not have access to the legal system. Bradley is the managing attorney for the Asheville, North Carolina, office of the Forrest Firm, and recounted a story of a woman who was unable to cash a claim check from her insurance company. The insurance company wrote the check out to both her and her estranged husband. Her husband refused to sign the check until he received “his portion” of the funds. Defeated, the woman mailed the check back to the insurance company.
“Had this woman had access to legal assistance to file for divorce and properly title her home, this would not have been an issue for her,” says Bradley.
Although Benson, Bradley, and Fiore do not know each other, our conversations with them had strikingly similar themes: it does not take much time or experience to make a difference; outcomes are better when survivors have an attorney; and volunteering is a good way to develop legal skills in an area that you may not otherwise practice every day. If you are interested in volunteering, please reach out to your local legal aid organization, state bar association, or the authors of this article.
The Disaster Legal Services Program of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (YLD) exists to respond to the unmet legal needs that arise after natural disasters. Through a partnership with FEMA, 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.