Thousands of survivors of recent natural disasters in the United States – from the California wildfires to the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico – are on the road to recovery thanks to the ABA Young Lawyers Division’s Disaster Legal Services Program.
DLS volunteers on the frontlines shared an overview of the pro bono assistance offered to survivors and the lessons learned in the aftermath at a program during the Midyear Meeting in Vancouver.
YLD runs its disaster relief program in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and works with the state and local bars in the affected areas to set up and manage hotlines to connect disaster survivors who cannot afford a lawyer with the legal help they need.
DLS Coordinator Andrew VanSingel emphasized the importance of the work: “Disaster survivors need food, water, shelter — and a lawyer.”
Indeed, the needs of victims are complex and DLS connects them to a variety of essential services:
- Individual assistance, which includes emergency assistance, crisis counseling, disaster case management, disaster legal services and disaster unemployment assistance.
- Critical-needs assistance, including a one-time payment of $500 per household for immediate or critical needs, such as food, water, medicine, toiletries, fuel and transportation.
- Transitional-sheltering assistance that provides vouchers for survivors to stay in participating hotels or motels from 5-30 days.
- Small Business Administration program that provides long-term, low-interest loans to disaster survivors with a $20,000 max for real property and a 40,000 max for personal property.
VanSingel said many legal issues are exacerbated by such things as landlord-tenant issues, consumer fraud, insurance, public benefits, estates and real property and tax issues.
“No matter how prepared you think you are for a catastrophic event, you are never prepared enough,” said Betty Balli Torres, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.
“We made a good decision when we obtained funding from Bank of America, we chose to set aside $2 million for the next disaster. This allowed us to get immediate resources to individuals when Hurricane Harvey hit.”
Balli Torres said Texas does a good job of handling natural disasters. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the state evacuated 1.4 million people and had more than 40,000 people living in shelters at one point. Texas implemented one hotline number to access three programs to provide services.
However, DLS saw gaps in services, including vague income-eligibility guidelines for victims. As a result, “FEMA has now allowed DLS to apply the eligibility guidelines more liberally to streamline service provisions,” said Balli Torres.
VanSingel spoke of lessons learned in Houston and Puerto Rico. “Lots of people weren’t eligible for assistance and they didn’t trust the government,” he said.
“There were no bilingual staff available to support the community in Puerto Rico and no funding available to hire staff,” he added.
“Pro bono assistance is dire now more than ever because people have moved on to the next disaster,” said Stephanie Choy, managing director of Legal Services Trust Fund Program for the State Bar of California.
To assist victims of the northern California fires, local legal aid organizations established the Bay Area Resilience Collaborative (BARC), a group of representatives who developed a regional coordination plan for the provision of legal services in the aftermath of a major disaster in the San Francisco Bay area. BARC also collaborated with the California Bar Foundation to create a disaster relief and recovery fund that raised $50,000 to help support direct legal aid and pro bono legal services to fire survivors.
The legal aid experts provided some recommendations in planning for natural disasters:
- Keep the legal community engaged and encourage lawyers to connect with DLS and/or FEMA for guidance and training opportunities to support victims of natural disasters
- Train pro bono lawyers and volunteers in your community to prepare for natural disasters
- Manage expectations of volunteers, especially three to six months after a natural disaster occurs
- Donate resources and supplies on the front-end
- Recognize the urgency of legal aid, especially for the undocumented population
In addition to these recommendations, VanSingel recommended pro bono legal organizations take note of the increasing number of mental health and domestic violence issues post-natural disasters.
“Volunteer lawyers and mental health professionals must work together to help people impacted by these issues and provide them support in moving on with their lives,” said Adi Martinez, executive director of the Fundacion Fondo Acceso A La Justica, Inc.
The ABA Young Lawyers Division serves as the exclusive coordinator of legal services for disaster survivors. They coordinate legal aid (LSC and non-LSC grantees) as well as state and local bar associations to provide added support and expand pro bono services.
For additional resources, disaster relief hotlines and information on the ABA disaster legal services program, click here.