Submitted by Andrew VanSingel – Director, Disaster Legal Services
In early August, gusts of wind passed through the Sahara Desert and out to Cape Verde. These gusts soon turned into a formation garnering the attention of the National Hurricane Center. The formation soon went from “Potential Tropical Cyclone Ten” to Hurricane Harvey, shortly before hitting landfall in Texas. Harvey gained national attention as one of the most devastating natural disasters to hit the United States, a title it held for just ten days, until Hurricane Irma upstaged Harvey, only for Hurricane Maria to upstage Irma ten days later. These three hurricanes resulted in nearly 5 million FEMA registrations in the 60 days following Harvey, with thousands more registrations added daily (for context, a similar hat trick Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma yielded nearly 2.7 million FEMA registrations). Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, wildfires threatened life and property in California and Oregon.
While some may associate the needs of disaster survivors to be food, water, and shelter, there is also a critical need to provide legal services to disaster survivors. This is where the Disaster Legal Services Program steps in. The DLS Program is a longstanding public service project of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD). Through a Memorandum of Agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the ABA YLD provides free legal advice and representation to low-income disaster survivors as defined in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act). The DLS program works to coordinate the delivery of legal services with its core partners – the American Red Cross, Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and its grantees, Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) chapters, as well as state/local bar associations, and other social service providers.
Lawyers are in shelters immediately after a disaster, providing advice and information on the litany of legal issues affecting disaster survivors. Such common questions are, “my landlord is keeping my security deposit because my unit is flooded,” or “my apartment was not flooded, but now my landlord wants to evict me so he can rent the unit at a higher price,” or “I was displaced from my apartment and living 11 hours away, and my landlord says I have 24 hours to get all of my possessions out of the apartment,” followed by, “can they do that?” Lawyers are also present in Disaster Recovery Centers (resource facilities for survivors to get information and apply for disaster assistance programs, co-located by FEMA, and the SBA, as well as non-profit organizations) providing legal information and advice.
As the first responders and TV crews gradually leave town for the next crisis du jour, attorneys will still be there, ready to address the long-term legal needs of disaster survivors. Such long-term needs include appealing denials of FEMA benefits or filing suits against a landlord, contractor, or insurance company. The long-term response is especially critical in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, as the Hurricanes destroyed the island’s infrastructure, leaving millions without power, water, or transportation.
The DLS program is rising to the challenge to find creative ways to deliver legal services to disaster survivors. In Texas, the Supreme Court issued an order allowing attorneys not barred in Texas to provide pro bono assistance to Harvey Survivors. In the USVI and Puerto Rico, we teamed with the Louisiana Civil Justice Center to service our toll-free disaster hotline and address immediate legal needs of survivors. We are currently working with dozens of state/local bar associations and social service providers to coordinate our legal response. Attorneys are mobilizing to help with non-legal needs as well, such as volunteering at shelters and raising money to get food, water, and toiletries to those who need it most. We have also collaborated with business to help provide assistance to survivors – for example, Mophie, which manufactures battery packs for mobile devices, donated hundreds of battery packs for the DLS program to distribute to survivors and those providing legal assistance in the USVI and Puerto Rico.
You may be reading this wondering, “What can I do to help?” Let me offer three easy suggestions on how to assist disaster survivors:
Learn – Educate yourself about the legal needs of disaster survivors, which will allow you to help your community when a disaster strikes in your community. Locally, you can participate in the ABA’s Free Legal Answers program, a virtual legal advice clinic that provides advice on civil legal questions asked through the website.
Donate – Make a financial contribution to agencies helping disaster survivors is the most efficient and immediate way you can make an impact. Consider a donation to a local LSC grantee, or contact our team to inquire about immediate needs from organizations helping disaster survivors.
Mentor – If you are experienced in disaster law, but unable to provide “boots on the ground” assistance, volunteer as a disaster law mentor. This is a great way for those far away to make a significant impact by providing technical assistance to attorneys in the disaster zone.
“My name is Andrew VanSingel and I stand for providing legal assistance to disaster survivors, will you stand with me?”