The American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division has been providing legal assistance to disaster survivors since 1978, when the Division and the Federal Emergency Management Agency created the Disaster Legal Services program.
When you don’t have a place to live, you don’t know whether you need to pay your rent or not. When you don’t have a place to work, you don’t know whether you have to pay your bills.
Christopher Rogers, Haynes and Boone LLP
Through the DLS, ABA lawyers offer immediate temporary legal assistance to disaster survivors at no charge. Landlord/tenant issues, unemployment benefits and contractor scams are among the concerns that trouble victims of tornadoes, flooding and hurricanes.
In the last 10 years, ABA lawyers have responded to 157 declared disasters in 43 states and 2 U.S. territories.
Whether staffing hotlines or answering questions at local disaster recovery centers, ABA lawyers help survivors begin to repair their homes and their lives.
Recovery in Mississippi
Four people were killed in the tornado that swept through Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in January 2017. Homes and businesses were flattened.
Survivors comforted one another as they returned home and began cleanup.
ABA lawyers called to the area assisted residents with insurance claims and establishing home ownership – the first step in obtaining disaster relief.
Flood Relief in Baton Rouge
DLS Director Andrew VanSingel visited Baton Rouge, LA, after the historic flooding in 2016. As he drove through the streets, he was struck by the mounds of possessions pulled out of houses.
Restoring Calm in the Face of Crisis
Born and raised in New Orleans, attorney Graham Ryan finds the Disaster Legal Services (DLS) a good way to give back.
“When you live down here, everything is before Katrina or after Katrina,” he said. “Volunteering through the DLS has shown me the will and resilience of the Louisiana people.”
Resilience, indeed. Baton Rouge suffered historic flooding last August; New Orleans was struck by a tornado in January. In both cases, lawyers with the DLS mobilized.
“The DLS hotline was set up within days of the flooding,” Ryan recalled, saying the group fielded 400 to 500 calls a week following the flood. “People’s lives were washed away.”
Ryan was gearing up in February for the New Orleans response and already had logged about 100 calls from residents needing assistance.
The American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division has been providing legal assistance to disaster survivors since 1978, when the Division entered into an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that created the DLS program.
When disaster strikes, the FEMA Regional Director assesses community needs and makes the call to the ABA team.
Andrew VanSingel, a legal aid attorney near Chicago, has led the team for the last two years – covering 25 disasters in 19 states. His role is to mobilize the ABA YLD District Representatives in the affected area, who will then assemble a response team from the state and local bar associations, local legal aid groups and local law firms.
The process is a big orchestration with VanSingel acting as the conductor.
The most common issues, he said, involved landlord/tenant situations, emergency unemployment relief and insurance claims.
“But we’re working with people who are living in crisis,” he said, “so we really try to provide holistic help and try to spot other areas where they might need help.”
Attorney Wendy Ellard is still haunted by the man she assisted in the Hattiesburg, MS, Disaster Recovery Center after a January tornado struck the city and surrounding counties.
Mentally disabled, he had worked part-time at a local charity, which was closed by the storm. With no home and no job, he spent his last few dollars renting a car so he could travel to the recovery center. Volunteers focused on meeting his most immediate needs – food and water.
“You don’t realize how bad it is until you really see it,” Ellard said.
VanSingel, Ryan and Ellard all encouraged young lawyers to get involved in the program.
“Lawyers can sign up to volunteer on the hotline or through the Disaster Recovery Centers,” Ryan said.
Training is provided for those working outside their specialties, and CLE credit is available. Although the needs of disaster victims may go on for years, lawyers can accomplish a tremendous amount in just a short amount of time.
“I work crazy hours,” said Ellard, “so I understand how lawyers might think they don’t have time to volunteer. But when you see these people in need, you really do understand how bad they need our help.”