When Disaster Hits: Disaster Legal Services

Volume 36, Number 6


About the Author

Latasha McCrary is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and a solo practitioner in Huntsville, Albama.

One week ago, I would have never imagined that I would awake to these words from the Huffington Post: “Powerful tornadoes ripped across North Alabama Wednesday [April 27, 2011] as part of one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in recent memory.” The Huffington Post, www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/28/huntsville-al-tornado-video_n_854921.html (accessed May 6, 2011). I never envisioned that at this very moment my community would be recovering from one of the world’s deadliest tornadoes since the 1950s. Nevertheless, that seems to be the very nature of most natural disasters. Just as we discovered in Haiti, Japan, and New Orleans, disasters leave citizens vulnerable, perplexed, and astonished by their powerful impact.

In Alabama, after enduring 150 tornadoes in one day, the state was left devastated by hundreds of deaths, injury, and unbelievable destruction. Yet, history has proven that when disaster hits, the human spirit is resilient. Within days following the tornadoes, officials, hundreds of organizations, and thousands of volunteers joined together to provide immediate relief efforts to victims. Citizens provided food, clothing, and medical assistance to those in need.

So, what about legal services?

As I worked closely with groups to mobilize volunteers to distribute food, remove debris, and provide critical services to victims, I contemplated how I could use my own professional skills to assist my community. “In times like these, what do lawyers do?” I asked. As always, we continue to render service!

In the midst of disaster, lawyers continue to serve their communities. After all, service is the core of our profession. The question then is not “what do we do?” but rather “how can we best serve?”

One State’s Response to Disaster

Although there may be several ways for state and local bars to respond during disasters, Alabama implemented the following Disaster Relief Plan to assist the general public:

  1. It activated a Disaster Assistance Hotline to provide pro bono legal assistance on questions surrounding insurance claims, landlord-tenant, and other housing problems, home repair contracts, consumer protection matters, mortgage foreclosure problems, and the replacement of wills and powers of attorney.
  2. It provided pro bono assistance through its Volunteer Lawyers Program.
  3. It provided pro bono assistance at walk-in legal clinics.
  4. It provided financial contributions to assist disaster relief agencies.
  5. It used the Practice Management Assistance Program to coordinate the exchange of information between attorneys and law firms.
  6. It organized programs to assist displaced attorneys.

How the ABA YLD Helps States Dealing with Disaster

The immediate organization and response of Alabama’s Bar Association can largely be attributed to the efforts of the ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services Program (DLS). DLS is a federally authorized program that collaborates with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deliver pro bono legal services to disaster survivors.

At FEMA’s request, the ABA YLD responds to every major disaster declared in the United States and its territories. When disaster legal services are needed, FEMA forwards a request to the ABA YLD’s Director of Disaster Legal Services. The Director of DLS then contacts the ABA YLD District Representative of the affected area. The District Representative is subsequently responsible for setting up a toll free hotline like the one being used in Alabama. The District Representative also is responsible for recruiting volunteer attorneys to staff the hotline and represent disaster survivors.

Over the past 20 years, the ABA YLD and FEMA have partnered to deliver legal services to low-income victims of federally declared disasters in nearly every state in the nation. Disaster legal service hotlines have been implemented in Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and now Alabama. DLS provides assistance on thousands of legal issues affecting disaster survivors, and there is no question that this assistance is crucial.

According to Elizabeth Blair, the Vice-Director of DLS, “The key to helping survivors is preparedness.” Attorneys must be prepared before disasters hit! This view is similarly espoused by the ABA Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness. “As a profession it is imperative that we are prepared for disasters—natural or manmade. Preparedness is essential not only to avoid or mitigate the damage caused by a disaster, but to expedite and have in place mechanisms to respond when disaster strikes so that our staff is protected, our businesses survive, and our clients are served,” Blair says

Thanks to the efforts of DLS, I have no doubt that in Alabama our clients will continue to be served. With the immediate assistance of our state and local bars, Alabamians are in the best position for victory. The human spirit is indeed resilient. As such, whether we are lawyers, doctors, teachers, or servicemen, when disaster hits, we find a way to respond!  



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