Giving Hope to Flood Victims: Young Lawyers Help Victims Keep Their Heads Above Water
By Jill M. Kastner
Jill M. Kastner is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and General Counsel of Strat-O-Kastner in Glendale, Wisconsin.
When disaster strikes, the ABA YLD is ready to coordinate with FEMA to provide volunteer legal services for victims in need, and this year has seen no shortage of disasters or people in need.
Fall started off with another bad hurricane season. Winter ended with severe winter storms and floods throughout the United States. And spring hasn’t been much better with more rain and flooding, from Hawaii to Washington, North Dakota to Kentucky.
In Honolulu, Hawaii, heavy rains, high winds, and flooding destroyed more than sixty homes and damaged more than 360 residences, 90 percent of which belonged to low-income households. In Washington, severe winter snow and rain caused landslides, mudslides, and flooding, destroying homes and businesses. In Fargo, on the boarder of North Dakota and Minnesota, the Red River crested more than three feet above record highs. Thousands were forced to flee their homes as icy flood waters inundated towns, villages, and farms. Entire towns were devastated by the floods and the resulting damage.
District Representatives Spring into Action
To help flood victims in the hardest hit areas, each state’s District Representative works closely with FEMA to coordinate and manage the delivery of legal services to disaster victims. Already this year, the ABA YLD has sprung into action several times: first when then-President Bush declared a major disaster in Hawaii and Washington State; then, in April, when President Obama declared a major disaster in Fargo, North Dakota.
Once FEMA authorizes help from the ABA YLD, a hotline is set up within forty-eight hours. The hotline allows victims to call in and identify legal questions and needs. Jill Hasegowa, District Rep for Hawaii, set up a new hotline to help flood victims in Hawaii. Andrew Schpak, District Rep for Washington worked with the Washington State Bar to set up its hotline. In North Dakota, District Rep Sarah Theophilus started work to set up a disaster assistance hotline even before President Obama issued his declaration.
“The most rewarding part was making sure that those who need the assistance receive it,” says Schpak. “If you are a young lawyer, volunteer to help. . . . Although it is not a huge time commitment to answer a call or two that comes in to the hotline, you are able to help someone at a time when they need help the most.”
What’s Involved
Disaster victims have a variety of legal needs, the most common of which include:
  • insurance coverage questions,
  • landlord/tenant issues,
  • real property issues,
  • municipal liability, and
  • how FEMA can help.
You can’t “wait until the disaster strikes to coordinate with the local bar associations,” says Andrew Schpak. Every District Rep knows that they need to be prepared for when disaster strikes. “I was lucky that I had already talked with the Washington State Bar and we had already decided how to manage the situation if a disaster struck. That made the process much more streamlined when we did eventually get the green light to set up the DLS hotline.” 
ABA YLD District Representatives contribute a lot of volunteer time to this effort. For the disaster in Washington, Schpak donated more than forty-five hours of his own time, helping dozens of individuals.
Local Bars Step in
Not all disasters call for Disaster Legal Services. For District Reps to be activated, they first need authorization from FEMA. Even when the President declares a disaster, FEMA may not activate Disaster Legal Services. That happened this year in Kentucky and, for over a month, in Fargo, North Dakota/Minnesota. In these cases, local bar groups can provide volunteer legal services to victims on their own. This was the case for young lawyer leaders in Minnesota.
Jennifer Daugherty, former District Rep for Minnesota, is working with the Minnesota Northwest Legal Aid Services to set up a toll-free number for flood victims. “They will assist eligible callers,” says Daugherty. “[F]or those who exceed eligibility requirements, [we] will have the Minnesota State Bar take over and find a volunteer to assist the caller.” 
ABA YLD’s Disaster Legal Services Program Overview
  • The Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program is a federal disaster legal assistance program operated by the ABA YLD under a memorandum of understanding with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Through DLS, persons affected by major disasters may receive free legal assistance.
  • The DLS hotline is a toll free number connecting disaster victims with attorneys.
  • The DLS hotline serves two key functions:
    1. Attorneys staffing the hotline provide basic legal advice to callers.
    2. When a caller needs more advanced legal advice, a hotline operator can perform intake and forward the caller’s legal matter to a volunteer attorney with that area of specialization.
  • The goal is to establish a hotline within forty-eight hours of receiving the official request from FEMA to implement DLS.
  • Since 2003, over 100,000 disaster victims have been served.
  • Since 2006, DLS has been implemented in thirty-six states
To learn more about the ABA YLD’s Disaster Legal Services Program visit