From August to October, the United States has been hit with a number of devastating natural disasters, including the Northern California wildfires and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate, causing flooding and major damage to five states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Andrew VanSingel, program director for the ABA Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services, and Eli Salomon, an attorney licensed in California, wrote about how lawyers can help in “Disaster Legal Services May Be Needed in Your Backyard. Here’s How You Can Help,” in the September/October issue of TYL, the magazine of the YLD.
Responding to natural disasters involves close coordination at the local, state and federal levels to bring medical aid, temporary shelter, rescue operations and legal services to those in need.
Legal needs arise as soon as the immediate crisis has passed, and among the questions survivors ask about are:
- Housing (i.e., am I obligated to pay rent if my apartment is flooded?)
- Employment (i.e., can an employer fire me for missing work during a disaster?)
- Assistance (i.e., do I qualify for FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program, which may provide immediate funds for critical needs, disaster unemployment benefits and housing vouchers?)
Longer-term legal needs include:
- Appeals of denied FEMA claims
- Disputes with insurance companies
- Consumer claims.
Following any presidential declaration of a “major disaster,” YLD provides disaster legal services through a partnership with FEMA, the ABA and the local Legal Services Corporation (LSC) grantee(s). As stipulated in the agreement, YLD “has the sole and complete authority to coordinate and manage the delivery of legal services to disaster survivors,” in addition to training volunteers.
After a disaster is declared, YLD coordinates with the state and local bar associations, legal aid agencies and social service providers in the affected area to ensure efforts are not duplicated. A hotline is then established for those affected by the disaster to call, and a press release is issued announcing the hotline, explaining DLS program and listing the organizational partners.
The delivery of legal services can vary by disaster and area of the country. For the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the State Bar of Texas is maintaining the hotline that directs callers to the appropriate legal services provider. If eligible, the LSC organization will represent the individual. If the caller does not qualify for legal services, or if the LSC organization is “at capacity,” the caller will be referred to a private attorney who will represent them at no cost.
Florida handles things differently in that the state bar speaks with the hotline callers directly, and then directs them to the appropriate volunteer attorney.
Because the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico suffered such significant infrastructure damage, their hotline calls are being routed to the Louisiana Civil Justice Center, which has volunteers set up just for those calls.
This year alone, YLD DLS has responded to more than 20 disasters.
VanSingel offers this advice for how lawyers can help when disaster strikes:
- Be proactive, not reactive. Before the next disaster occurs, get up to speed on FEMA benefits, specifically ones administered through its Individuals & Households Program (you can find it on FEMA’s website) or watch free ABA CLEs on representing disaster survivors here and here.
- Get involved with your local affiliate or local legal aid agency. After you educate yourself, reach out to your local YLD affiliate or legal aid agency and learn more about designing disaster legal services and preparedness programming.
- Volunteer. Reach out to your local LSC grantee and volunteer your time. Many of the issues affecting disaster survivors, including housing, employment and public benefits, affect those with low incomes before a disaster strikes as well.