More than nine weeks after Hurricane Michael ripped through the Florida panhandle, Panama City and Mexico Beach still look like a war zone. Among the ripple effects of the disaster are residents leaving the area and not returning, businesses closing (including a mall) and a local hospital announcing 800 layoffs. With FEMA trailers slow to arrive, people are left living in their vehicles or shelters.
Those were among the impacts described to ABA President Bob Carlson and Andrew VanSingel and Linda Anderson Stanley of the ABA Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) Disaster Legal Services Program. The three traveled to Tallahassee on Dec. 11 to meet with state and local officials, legal aid lawyers and pro bono volunteers to discuss how the association can help.
After natural disasters, ABA YLD works with the FEMA and local legal aid offices to provide legal assistance to disaster survivors. Since Hurricane Michael hit in October, FEMA has received more than 100,000 claims and disbursed more than $120 million to cover damages. So far, 196 volunteer lawyers have responded to 514 YLD DLS hotline calls, mostly about legal issues surrounding landlord/tenant problems, consumer issues such as contractor fraud, insurance claims and FEMA claims.
The panhandle hadn’t seen such devastation in decades, and as a result there was a low level of understanding of the legal issues following a disaster. Many residents were not familiar with FEMA or the possible entitlements available to them. “Grass-roots outreach and education from volunteers and staff from Legal Services of North Florida (LSNF) provided critical information to survivors,” VanSingel reported.
At meetings at Florida State University and with LSNF, the ABA representatives learned that there is still a significant need for Florida pro bono attorneys to help survivors and that some LSNF attorneys are still grappling with their own losses from the storm.
Carlson also visited Raleigh, N.C., for similar meetings on Dec. 12 regarding Hurricane Florence.
Since September 2007, ABA YLD has responded to more than 180 declared disasters in 44 states and four U.S. territories.