Eighteen Months Later, Touro Law Disaster Relief Clinic Still Assisting Households Affected by Superstorm Sandy

Vol. 39 No. 5


Melissa J. Healy is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and an Associate in the Portland, Oregon, office of Stoel Rives LLP.

Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast nearly 18 months ago, but the need for disaster legal services, especially pro bono services, remains strong today. As documented in previous issues of The Affiliate, the Young Lawyers Division’s Disaster Legal Services (YLD DLS) was on the ground in the months following Sandy, running a hotline and deploying attorneys out into field. The YLD DLS, however, is funded by FEMA, and is entirely dependent on volunteers, which means that the disaster relief efforts provided by the YLD DLS would not remain indefinitely. However, through coordination between the YLD DLS team and Touro Law Center, much needed assistance is still available for many residents in Long Island still affected by Superstorm Sandy.

In January 2013, Touro Law Center opened its Disaster Relief Clinic, and since then, has provided assistance to approximately 1,750 households (and more than 2,500 individuals) affected by Superstorm Sandy. The Clinic began under a private grant from Touro College Board member and law school friend, Martin Oliner, and his wife, Reva, when it became clear that there was a significant unmet need for Sandy-related legal services on Long Island. The Clinic continues to operate thanks to additional support provided by organizations such as the Long Island Community Foundation, the Robin Hood Foundation, and the United Way, along with a grant from the State of New York.

Until recent months, requests for assistance were funneled through a hotline, with the majority of calls coming from seniors and working families. The hotline was recently transitioned into a weekly walk-in clinic offering individual consultations, which continues to operate at capacity.

The bulk of the Clinic’s work to date has focused on flood insurance advocacy, including public workshops and coordinating with other nonprofits and legal services providers in delivering disaster relief and recovery services. Additional ongoing legal needs include disputes with contractors over substandard work or possible fraud, and mortgage and foreclosure issues created or made worse by Sandy-related losses, especially when coupled with insurance underpayments or contractor-related disputes. Touro Law estimates that over 60% of the questions that it receives concern insurance-related questions, predominantly involving flood insurance. Other areas of need, which were generally more prevalent within the first year of the storm, included FEMA’s disaster assistance program and landlord-tenant disputes.

To date, over 100 law students from six countries have participated in the Clinic under attorney supervision. Students are given field placements at walk-in clinics and work on fact-finding investigations, conduct legal research, and assist with legal and administrative proceedings. Beyond day-to-day tasks, the Clinic plays an integral part in efforts to promote systematic reform (along with Touro’s Public Advocacy Center). Initiatives have included developing an “insurance checklist” and sample letters to insurance companies for legal services providers and the public, as well as organizing workshops for the public and nonprofit roundtables at the law school.

Touro Law second year student Alanna McGovern is just one of many students whose law school tenure and future career have been shaped by both Superstorm Sandy and Touro Law’s Disaster Relief Clinic. Alanna enrolled at Touro Law with the dream to be an elder law attorney. The storm destroyed her family’s home and personally affected her life. She felt it was her duty to help fellow storm victims, which prompted her to enroll in the Disaster Law Clinic. The experience has been eye opening and career altering for Alanna.

“I gained so much through my work at the Clinic. My first client, an elderly woman, used to cry every time I would call her. Week after week, she was so distraught she could not help but cry. By the end [of our representation] we found her resolution, and she called me her angel and thanked me for being her advocate. It was an awesome experience to be her point of contact and go-to person and to be able to help her with legal services she needed to get through such a difficult time. I decided to be a lawyer not to make a whole lot of money, but to make a difference. I know that the experiences I have had at Touro Law coupled with my passion will enable me to do just that. I look forward to making a difference for people for my entire career.”

Alanna will continue working with the Clinic through the summer as a summer fellow, which will allow her to continue the advocacy efforts and receive a stipend for her work.

According to YLD DLS Director David Nguyen, the Clinic continues to be an invaluable resource to help meet the long-term needs of those in the community affected by Sandy. “Many legal issues aren’t discovered, much less resolved, until months or even years after a disaster,” Nguyen said. “I have no doubt that there will be post-Sandy legal issues pending several years down the road.”

Attorneys looking to help with the continuing post-Sandy recovery are encouraged to contact Clinic Director Professor Benjamin Rajotte, at brajotte@tourolaw.edu for ideas on how to get involved. Those looking to make an impact closer to home should consider creating a disaster plan that can be implemented quickly in the event a local disaster strikes. This would involve tasks such as creating a list of local attorneys and legal service providers who can help with different disaster-related subject areas, assembling a team that will be in charge of implementation, and working with DLS to obtain the necessary training and resources in advance. Nguyen can be reached at dhknguyen@gmail.com with questions about how to best plan for a disaster in your area.


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