How to Prepare Yourself to Assist Disaster Victims

Linda Anderson Stanley and Amanda Brown

During the past few months, several catastrophic natural disasters affected millions of people in the United States. While deadly hurricanes dumped trillions of gallons of water on the gulf coast and the Caribbean, massive wildfires swept through the West, turning communities into ash. Although we cannot control these disasters, we can come together to prepare and respond for when the next one strikes. Most people associate the immediate needs of disaster survivors to be food, water, and shelter; however, there are significant legal needs of disaster survivors.

Through its Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) strives to narrow the gap of unmet legal needs by resourcing volunteer attorneys across the country to help disaster survivors. Shortly after the smoke clears, or the water recedes, and people start putting back together their lives, some common questions arise, such as “Is my insurance going to pay for this?” or “My rent is due tomorrow, but my place is not habitable—do I have to pay my landlord?” or “FEMA denied my application for benefits, now what?” As attorneys, we have the opportunity, if not an obligation, to help answer these questions, and to do that, we need to be prepared. After hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hit, attorneys from across the country stepped up to provide pro bono services. The response was astonishing. While there is certainly a role for everyone in disaster relief, proper preparedness is vital.

Why Should I Prepare? It Will Never Happen to Me . . .

As members of the DLS team in the direct line of action, one of the most important pieces of advice we can bestow upon our attorneys is to prepare for a disaster in your own state. Even if you do not live in California or a hurricane-prone state, a disaster can strike in your backyard. There is an abundance of media coverage on the hurricanes and fires, but what you may not be aware of is that in the first 10 months of 2017, there were 53 major disaster declarations, many of which pertain to areas of the country that you would not associate as being disaster-prone (e.g., Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Idaho, to name a few). Disaster survivors in these areas need your help too.

How You Can Prepare

Educate Yourself. The most effective thing you can do happens before the disaster strikes. Educating yourself now on federal and state disaster laws enables you to help survivors when they need it the most—right after the disaster. The immediate needs are usually in the form of answering landlord-tenant questions; helping survivors apply for SBA loans, Other Needs Assistance, and Disaster Unemployment Assistance; and helping with denials of FEMA benefits. Prepare now by educating yourself on these issues. The best way to do this is to know your state laws and procedures related to disaster recovery, and to attend trainings and webinars on local disaster relief issues whenever they are available. You can also check FEMA’s website for more specialized information on the FEMA and SBA application and appeal processes.

Know your local ABA District Representative. The YLD has 34 districts, each of which has its own disaster legal services plan of action. Knowing your district representative will keep you informed on updates to disaster recovery efforts and how to provide pro bono assistance in your area.

Volunteer with your local legal services provider. Legal aid attorneys have subject matter experience in areas affecting disaster survivors such as housing and public benefits issues. Many legal services providers have disaster-related trainings and CLE’s available to their pro bono attorneys at no cost. You can help expand their capacity, and gain the skill needed to help disaster survivors—it is a win-win.

How You Can Help

Volunteer with the DLS Program. Because you already know your district representative, reach out to volunteer. Each district handles volunteer onboarding differently (which is another reason to reach out in advance of a disaster). Disaster survivors across the declared area will call this number looking for disaster-related legal assistance. Volunteers are always needed to respond to these calls—it might as well be you!

Volunteer with a legal services provider. You previously established a relationship with your local legal aid agency. Reach out and see if they have cases to take on a pro bono basis. If not, just remind them that you are available in the event cases come in. If you did not previously register as a volunteer, do so now!

Volunteer with ABA Free Legal Answers. Don’t have the time to take on a full case? Sign up with your state’s Free Legal Answers virtual legal advice clinic. Users can post civil legal questions to the website, and you can respond with legal information and advice. Some states even have a special “disaster” related category to post questions to. Use your new ability to answer disaster-related questions on your own time.

Much like thousands of attorneys across the country, you may be in a situation where you can help, but the disaster is not in an area in which you are licensed to practice. Fear not, as there are two options that are available:

Mentor. The DLS team created a mentor form, where attorneys experienced in disaster law can be on standby to give technical assistance to attorneys in the field who lack the technical experience. Consider sharing successful FEMA appeals (redacted for confidentiality, of course), or sharing ways you could help someone recover in other areas of federal disaster law. If you are interested in serving as a mentor, sign up here.

Donate. Although we may feel compelled to offer our time, sometimes the best thing we can do is make a financial contribution to the organizations that are helping disaster survivors. Donating to a local legal services provider (click here for a list of LSC grantees) helps them take more cases and have a larger impact. You can also make a financial contribution to the ABAs Fund for Justice and Education (FJE), which is raising $200,000 to provide funding to several DLS initiatives.

Attorneys are a vital piece in the disaster recovery process—sometimes for years after the fact. As members of the profession, we each took an oath to dutifully serve our communities, especially in times of need. When a natural disaster strikes, survivors look to us to help them navigate the flood of applications, processes, paperwork, and resources that take over their lives for days, months, or years. The most important thing we can do is to be ready when they call on us for help by taking a proactive—rather than reactive—approach. Prepare yourself today to make a difference in someone’s life tomorrow.

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Linda Anderson Stanley and Amanda Brown

Linda Anderson Stanley is a staff attorney at Bay Area Legal Services in Tampa, Florida. Amanda Brown is the ABA Center for Innovation's Microsoft Next Gen Fellow. She is spending one year in-residence at Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Both authors are members of the ABA Young Lawyers Division’s Disaster Legal Services Team.