First Katrina, Now Sandy: Three Mistakes We Keep Making After Natural Disasters

Only when recovery efforts dedicate sufficient resources for civil legal aid will all survivors of disasters have the information and resources they need to rebuild their lives.
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This month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued its review of New Jersey's response to Hurricane Sandy, finding glaring problems with the state's housing recovery efforts. The report concluded that New Jersey has failed to ensure that poor and minority families get their fair share of recovery assistance.

As a civil legal aid lawyer and a veteran of Hurricane Katrina, I'm all too familiar with our mistakes during disaster recovery. And while you think we would have learned from Katrina, it's clear from what's happening in regions affected by Sandy that we haven't. Fortunately, civil legal aid programs are helping thousands of families, from Mississippi to New Jersey and beyond, recover from flawed recovery policies and their inadequate implementation.

Here's how.

First, civil legal aid programs are helping residents access the funds they deserve -- and reducing the number of qualified applicants that relief programs erroneously reject.

HUD's review showed that New Jersey's contractor wrongly rejected thousands of applicants affected by Hurricane Sandy. Similarly, Mississippi disqualified some 4,000 eligible applicants for housing recovery assistance they had been waiting for since Katrina struck. Vigilant monitoring by civil legal aid lawyers and their community partners led to a re-evaluation of the applications and an additional allocation of $40 million to help families during the long-delayed recovery.

Second, housing recovery policies give too little attention to the needs and circumstances of low- and middle-income people following a disaster.

After Katrina, for example, hundreds of Mississippi families whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged did not have clear title to their property. If local legal aid programs and hundreds of pro bono lawyers had not intervened, these families likely would have been unable to receive assistance under the state's guidelines. Working together, they negotiated with the state to change the eligibility policy, securing millions in housing recovery assistance for families who needed it most.

Finally, federal recovery plans often overlook programs that can provide the legal assistance and advocacy survivors need to get back on their feet.

In order to prevent wrongful evictions, obtain repairs to damaged housing, go after contractor fraud, and contest inappropriate denials of insurance claims, legal assistance is essential. When adequately funded, local legal aid programs can best marshal the resources of pro bono lawyers eager to volunteer their help. Yet these kinds of programs are often underfunded, putting those most vulnerable after a disaster, such as seniors and the disabled, at risk.

Even if federal policymakers have been slow to learn from these mistakes, advocates for survivors of disasters have learned from past efforts. Following Sandy, the Fair Share Housing Center in New Jersey lobbied for important changes in HUD's rules by drawing on the experience of Katrina advocates. Such changes can go a long way in ensuring the most vulnerable members of our communities are provided for.

Out of $51 billion in disaster recovery funds for Sandy, Congress allocated $1 million for legal aid. That's more than was allocated after Katrina, but still not nearly enough. In the wake of Sandy, the exemplary service of New York and New Jersey legal aid programs has shown that these are essential efforts worth funding. Only when recovery efforts dedicate sufficient resources for civil legal aid will all survivors of disasters have the information and resources they need to rebuild their lives.

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