Civil legal assistance critical to disaster relief

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What comes to mind when we think of disaster relief? Probably images of Red Cross volunteers handing out blankets and fresh water, National Guard units delivering food and other supplies, and FEMA Mobile Disaster Recovery Centers. Lawyers are probably the last people we think of as helpers in the midst of devastating weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes. The 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina last year, and the five-year anniversary this year of the tornadoes that devastated areas in Massachusetts remind us that attorneys play a critical role in disaster relief.

In the aftermath of tragedies like these, civil legal aid attorneys helped victims reclaim stability and normalcy by shepherding them through the legal morass of housing issues, replacing legal identification papers, making insurance claims, applying for disaster benefits, combatting contractor scams, and other civil legal issues that arise from the chaos.

Civil legal aid exists to help low-income people deal with non-criminal legal issues, and because poor people are more affected by disasters and suffer the greatest long-term consequences as a result the need for assistance is overwhelming when disaster strikes.

The response of New York's Legal Aid Society in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was breathtaking in its scope as legal aid lawyers fanned out to evacuation shelters, disaster centers, and community organizations in the hardest-hit areas to help people access benefits and services. Legal aid attorneys even stepped in to help keep the New York City criminal justice system operating, providing representation in arraignments, and other civil, criminal, and family matters. Later, the organization provided legal clinics for small businesses owners, homeowners, and immigrant communities impacted by the storm, and advocated for the urgent housing needs of tens of thousands of New York City Housing Authority tenants affected by Sandy.

We saw a similar response here in Massachusetts when tornadoes struck in June 2011 and left hundreds of people in the Springfield area homeless. Many were temporarily housed by the Red Cross at the MassMutual Center, where staff from Western Massachusetts Legal Services and the Massachusetts Justice Project shared a table to provide basic information on available services to those in need. Staff and attorneys from Western Massachusetts Legal Services also walked through the neighborhoods left decimated by the tornadoes distributing information about available legal and emergency services to those unable to travel to the MassMutual Center.

This is work that often continues long after the storm debris has been cleared away and the media has moved on to other news, since disaster-related legal issues can crop up in unforeseen ways. As Laura Tuggle, the executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, wrote in a recent reflection marking the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, "almost ten years later, we are still getting calls about people needing title clearing work done to qualify for Unmet Needs Road Home funds, FEMA is recouping previously paid benefits and sending people lien notices for their tax returns, and we still have contractor fraud cases in litigation."

Recognizing the critical role of civil legal aid in disaster recovery, the Legal Services Corporation, which administers federal legal aid funding, secured $1.2 million in grant money last year to help Midwestern states improve coordination between legal aid providers and disaster-preparedness organizations. One of the legal aid providers, Legal Aid of Nebraska, is using its portion of the funding to develop an interactive web portal and statewide legal disaster response training program for attorneys and other stakeholders to better prepare Nebraskans to access civil legal aid in the event of a disaster, among other initiatives. Yet another subgrantee, Iowa Legal Aid, is developing mobile technology to help disaster survivors get better access to legal aid in the aftermath of a disaster. The organization is also developing a disaster-preparedness toolkit for use by legal aid organizations across the country, offering best practices for disaster response, including long-term recovery.

As scientists continue to sound the alarm about increasing extreme weather events due to climate change, these initiatives are long overdue. State and federal government agencies must get a better grasp of the integral role that civil legal aid plays in helping disaster victims recover and rebuild and better integrate legal aid into our disaster preparedness planning. They must also provide the funding to match the overwhelming demand for legal aid that comes at such times. An article examining the work of legal aid lawyers in New Orleans after Katrina noted that generally, civil legal aid agencies were unable to handle between 66 and 80 percent of calls for assistance. Martha Bergmark, executive director of Voices for Civil Justice, a national organization working to raise awareness of civil legal aid, notes that the first time civil legal aid ever received federal disaster funding was in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when it was given just $1 million. "It was a start," Bergmark says, "but it didn't even remotely touch the level of need."

We simply must do better to ensure that we can meet the myriad short- and long-term legal needs of the poor and vulnerable people who are disproportionately affected by extreme weather events.

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