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ABA Disaster Legal Services Director on Sandy Recovery, Calls for Volunteerism


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ABA Disaster Legal Services Director on Sandy Recovery, Calls for Volunteerism

By Daniel Buchanan

Since Hurricane Sandy hit one of the most densely populated regions of the United States, every day we have been hearing about the outpouring of humanity from volunteers as well as from victims helping others affected by the storm.  It has reinforced my belief in people and the work that I do.

After becoming involved with the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services program over two years ago, I have been working intimately with coordinating the DLS response, planning strategically for more effective and efficient response processes, and developing relationships critical to our ability to serve disaster survivors.  Because this is a pro bono position, it has been difficult to find time outside my day job to visit disaster sites, to see the FEMA and DLS response firsthand.  However, because of the immense impact of Superstorm Sandy and the tragic aftermath the hurricane left behind, I rearranged my schedule to participate in volunteer attorney training, meet with my FEMA and bar association counterparts, and tour the destruction.  During my trip, the people I met and the things I saw confirmed the long-standing commitment of the legal profession and ABA members to serve those most in need.

Disaster Legal Services is a program administered by the ABA Young Lawyers Division with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  We also work closely with Legal Services Corporation and the ABA Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness.

EMA DLS Specialist Stephen Becker and a Fordham University law student talk to a disaster survivor about seeking legal assistance for his needs.

When an area hit by natural disaster needs federal assistance, FEMA determines the need for legal aid, and if necessary, initiates the program.  The DLS team then works to implement a free legal hotline through its YLD district representative, who has completed an intensive and comprehensive half-day training.  The setup of the hotline also usually involves collaboration with the state or local bar association, sometimes with the local legal aid organization or an area law firm.  Then, the hotline is widely publicized and volunteer attorneys standby to field various legal issues posed by disaster survivors.  Volunteer lawyers cannot accept fee-generating cases, and as such, these cases are sent to the lawyer referral service.

The setup and implementation of a legal hotline may seem simple; however, doing so requires a strong commitment as well as innovation and creativity.  In the case of Sandy, Alena Shautsova, Dana Hrelic and Blake Laurence, the district representatives for New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, respectively, worked with their state bar associations to set up the DLS hotline shortly after the hurricane hit.

Volunteers handling supplies earmarked for disaster survivors in the Rockaway Beach area.

The Connecticut Bar Association has recruited more than 25 lawyers, while both the New York State Bar Association and New Jersey Bar Association have recruited more than 60 volunteer lawyers.  These organizations, often collaborating with other nonprofit and legal aid organizations, are constantly looking for more volunteer lawyers to assist with the needs of others in their communities.  Depending on the state, calls into the hotlines can vary from a handful a week in the instance of Connecticut, to hundreds for New Jersey and New York, which are the hardest hit states.  Common legal issues volunteer attorneys are assisting with include FEMA assistance and appeals of benefits, landlord-tenant issues and insurance claims.

Over three days earlier this month, I visited an American Red Cross operations center, disaster recovery centers in both Connecticut and New York, the FEMA Joint Field Office in Queens, N.Y., and New York disaster areas on Staten Island and Rockaway Beach, as well as volunteered at a bulk distribution site for the American Red Cross.  After being involved with DLS for so many years, hearing stories and seeing pictures of devastated areas, nothing does justice to the understanding of a disaster’s impact as experiencing the destruction firsthand.

Volunteer lawyers are critical to the legal needs of disaster survivors, says David Nguyen, Disaster Legal Services Director.

To find volunteer opportunities, use theNational Pro Bono Volunteer Opportunities Guide, a joint project of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, its project, the ABA Center for Pro Bono, and Pro Bono Net.

Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and now Sandy—we have all seen and heard of the terrible and sad devastation that a natural disaster leaves behind.  The loss of personal belongings and family treasures that can never be replaced leaves a hole in one’s heart.  The struggles of having no home, electricity or food can strain one’s patience, and the difficulties of recovering after a disaster can put those already in a bad place even worse.  However, in the midst of the destruction and terrible aftermath of Sandy, I was able to see and experience the spirit of humanity that has overcome the usual separators of state lines as well as race and class differences to help fuel the rebuilding process.

To the FEMA employees who work around the clock seven days a week, living out of hotels away from their families; the Red Cross employees and volunteers traveling for hours and days, living out of shelters and working endless hours; the YLD district representatives; and hundreds of volunteer attorneys and law students taking time away from their law practices and studies to provide pro bono legal services to those who need it most — thank you!

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