Disaster Legal Services: Managing Disasters from Afar

Volume 37, Number 4


Sam Edmunds is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and an Associate with the Eagan, Minnesota, firm of Campbell Knutson P.A.

As leaders of the ABA YLD and its Affiliates, we are all familiar with the Division’s flagship public service project, Disaster Legal Services (DLS). DLS is a collaboration between the ABA YLD and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide pro bono legal services to disaster survivors. For more details on the recent work of the DLS project, check out David Nguyen’s article, “Disaster Legal Services: Unprecedented Number of Disasters Keep Young Lawyers Busy,” in The Affiliate’s January/February 2012 issue, Latasha McCray’s article, “When Disaster Hits: Disaster Legal Services,” in the July/August 2011 issue, and Kara Johnson’s article, “Disaster Legal Services: District Reps Learn How to Respond When Disaster Strikes,” in the September/October 2011 issue.I contacted state and local bar associations from coast to coast to find out about activities in the pipeline for Law Day 2012, and all were eager to discuss what they have planned.

Managing from Afar

This article will focus on the topic of managing disasters from afar. ABA YLD Affiliates across the country are divided up into 34 districts. It follows that many states do not have a district dedicated solely to them. The result is that the individual chosen to be District Representative frequently must represent multiple affiliates, sometimes in two very large states. For example, here in Minnesota, we share District 17 with Wisconsin. Similarly, South Carolina and the United States Virgin Islands encompass District 10, Colorado and Wyoming share District 28, Alaska and Hawaii comprise District 33, and so on. Many districts span long distances and the current District Representative may maintain a home base far from possible disaster locations.

Reach the People Most in Need

To learn more about this potential issue, I spoke with Michael Wells, Jr., the current District Representative for North Carolina’s District 9. Michael is a partner at the Winston-Salem law firm of Wells Jenkins Lucas & Jenkins PLLC. During his term as District Representative, Michael has been involved in organizing the DLS project for three separate disasters. Each disaster was officially declared by President Obama, which prompted FEMA to issue a Letter of Intent and DLS to mobilize. The three disasters included the remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole in October 2010, a series of tornadoes and major flooding issues in April 2011, and the remnants of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene during the summer of 2011. While Michael is based in Winston-Salem, these disasters were centralized near Wilmington, Raleigh (and across North Carolina), and the North Carolina coast.

I asked Michael about his experiences managing disasters while based a distance from the disaster locations. Michael responded that it can present challenges when the District Representative is not near the disaster, but distance is not an insurmountable hurdle. He said that most of the work performed by DLS volunteers is done through publications and then on the telephone. In sum, it’s just as easy to talk to a disaster survivor if they are in your town versus on the other side of the state.

Instead, Michael identified the toughest challenge as being reaching the people who are most in need. He suspects that the survivors who could most benefit from DLS are not aware of the services being offered. The North Carolina group takes out ads in a diverse set of publications, but Michael worries that many potential clients may not read any publications and that there is no other way to reach them.

Make Sure the Process Runs Smoothly

For a different perspective, I talked to Chip Tait, current District 12 Representative for Georgia and Alabama, and Tyronia “Ty” Smith, immediate past District 12 Representative. Chip is an attorney for the Vickers Riis firm in Mobile, Alabama, and Ty is an associate with Parker Hudson Rainer & Dobbs in Atlanta, Georgia. Each of them had a hand in working on the implementation of DLS in response to the northern Alabama tornadoes in April 2011. That disaster affected many other areas, but this article will focus specifically on the DLS response in Alabama.

While Chip’s term as District Representative did not start until August 2011, he was a young lawyer volunteer who participated in fielding calls in response to the disaster. Chip reported that an overwhelming number of young lawyer volunteers from across the state stepped up to participate in this DLS implementation. Chip is based out of Mobile on the gulf coast, while the disaster occurred around the Tuscaloosa area in the north central part of Alabama. For Chip, the biggest challenge was providing meaningful legal advice to disaster survivors who were not near his city. He submits that a lawyer can only do so much over the phone and, as a result, DLS ends up acting more like a lawyer referral service. The young lawyer volunteer listens to a caller’s legal issue, but if representation is necessary, the caller must be referred to a local attorney.

Ty offered a different perspective. She is based in Atlanta, Georgia, and was the District Representative at the time of the tornadoes. She was in charge of organizing the DLS response and had to do so from 200 miles away. Ty reported that Alabama already had a solid DLS system and guidebook in place. As a result, Ty’s job was to implement and oversee the procedures that had been developed long before the tornadoes hit. Because of the large scope of this particular disaster, Ty had to request twice as much financial assistance from FEMA to provide funding for a staff person to field DLS calls. In the end, 106 licensed attorney volunteers fielded approximately 250 calls, which resulted in the volunteers representing clients in 140 legal cases. The cases spanned a variety of issues including disputes with contractors, employment, insurance, landlord/tenant, real estate, wills and estates, and powers of attorney.

When I asked Ty what challenges were presented by her distance from the disaster, she reported that the hard part was not being able to be in Alabama on the ground. Ty would hear all of the details about the hurricanes and the work being done by attorney volunteers, but she herself could not get directly involved. In contrast, when Ty managed her first disaster, which was the 2009 tornadoes in Georgia, she had her home base right in the center of the disaster area. Ty was able to see the disaster with her own eyes and to meet volunteer attorneys and disaster survivors face-to-face. She attributes the successes in Georgia and Alabama to having a team of capable attorneys and staff working to make sure the process ran smoothly. After all, there is only so much the District Representative can do alone.

Difficult But Achievable

The message that I take away from Michael, Chip, and Ty, is that managing disasters from afar is a difficult but achievable task. Most of the services provided by DLS volunteers can happen over the phone. If there is a particular case that warrants further legal intervention, that client can be referred to a local attorney for representation. Our District Representatives work hard and do an excellent job of implementing DLS projects in response to natural disasters across the country. With such hardworking and capable District Representatives as Michael, Chip, Ty, and all the others across the United States, I’m confident that the ABA YLD’s DLS project will remain successful in the years to come, even from afar.


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