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Disaster Response in Legal Services


Hello everyone! Continuing with the theme of disaster preparedness in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and in response to the amount of literature I found on the subject, I’d like to talk a bit about disaster response. Plus, after serving on the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team last year, it’s a subject that’s close to my heart.

I’m going to assume a few things for the purposes of this article. First, I’m assuming that if (God forbid) a disaster were to strike your community tomorrow, you’d have already created disaster and/or continuity plans for your organization (if you haven’t, start here). I’m assuming that your organization and staff would be okay, or at least functional, because of the meticulous planning that you did ahead of time. And, I’m assuming that in this fictional scenario, the rest of your community was not as lucky, and that it needs your help.

So what can you do in the wake of a disaster? According to this TechSoup article, local nonprofits may be called upon to help with disaster recovery, even if that isn’t what they do normally, because they’re involved in the community, willing to help, and can call upon an existing pool of volunteers. “Depending on the type of disaster and availability of other resources, your organization may even find itself acting as a de facto emergency service assisting victims with first aid, transport, or counseling.”

I’m sure that’s possible, but it’s probably more likely that your organization would be called upon to dispense legal advice – more valuable than ever in the wake of a disaster – instead of cleaning up the community, organizing volunteers, or providing first aid. Legal assistance is one of those services that becomes even more necessary to a community in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, not less.

Disaster Legal Services

So what is your first step? According to FEMA and through a memorandum of understanding with the American Bar Association (ABA) Young Lawyers Division (YLD), when the President declares a disaster, the Stafford Act (see Sec. 415 on page 47) comes into effect to fund the Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program. Cases that can be taken through DLS are limited to those that will not provide a fee and come as a result of a presidentially-declared disaster. The types of cases usually taken include:

  • “Help with insurance claims for doctor and hospital bills, loss of property, loss of life, etc.;
  • Drawing up new wills and other legal papers lost in the disaster;
  • Help with home repair contracts and contractors;
  • Advice on problems with landlords; and
  • Preparing powers of attorney.”

In the aftermath of a disaster, DLS contacts your local DLS-affiliated District Representative, who in turn gets in touch with leaders of the state and local bar association, legal aid groups, and/or local law firms to implement the plan. In other words, DLS should be getting in touch with you; if you would like to volunteer and are licensed in the affected state, get in touch with DLS via the ABA’s National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide (click on your state and choose “ABA/FEMA Disaster Legal Assistance Program”).

DLS then sets up a 1-800 number hotline which connects callers to an intake specialist who, just like usual, asses issues and determines whether or not they should be sent on to an attorney. If approved, the intake specialist takes a phone number where the caller can be reached within 24-48 hours and forwards the intake forms to volunteer attorneys, who make call backs to provide over-the-phone assistance and, if needed, a referral. When the disaster concludes, your organization can submit its (preapproved) expenses to DLS for reimbursement. For more information, see DLS’s Frequently Asked Questions document or their Training Manual. You can also refer to the resources available through the ABA Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness.

DLS is not the only way for legal services to get involved in disaster response, however; technology allows volunteer attorneys a number of other ways to donate their expertise. The LiveHelp chat feature on LawHelp Interactive websites enables operators to chat with visitors to offer both legal help and help in navigating the site to find appropriate resources. In 2008, for example, LiveHelp on the Texas Law Help website was used to help link survivors with volunteer attorneys. Fewer than half of states use LiveHelp; consider adding it to your state’s legal services website to be ready for a disaster.

The National Disaster Legal Aid website is also a good resource for volunteer attorneys working in a disaster. The site is based on earlier work during Hurricane Katrina and is the product of collaboration between the ABA, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), and Pro Bono Net. It’s a centralized resource with updated hotline information, news releases, and various resources to help and recruit pro bono attorneys.

Finally, depending on the nature of a disaster, it may make sense for your work to go mobile. Some organizations, like New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP), and Atlanta Legal Aid Society (ALAS) all have mobile legal help units. Even if your organization doesn’t have this resource, you can still help in the field as did volunteer attorneys in Joplin, Missouri. The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA) deployed its Emergency Response Team (comprised of about 120 volunteer lawyers who had completed free CLE training on the MATA website) in the wake of the EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011. In cooperation with the Red Cross, the MATA ERT set up a hot spot for their laptops, iPads, and printers so that they could provide legal assistance in the field. Even after the Red Cross left, MATA has made several trips back to Joplin to continue providing legal assistance.

For more information on utilizing technology to provide legal services in the wake of a disaster, see William Jones’s article in GPSolo magazine on “Disaster Response and Legal Technology.”

Navigating Applications for Other Services

Another main function of legal services in the aftermath of disaster – aside from those bulleted points listed above – is helping callers to navigate applications for the various government benefits that become available when the Stafford Act comes into play. FEMA has recently made it a lot easier for people to navigate this on their own with, which collects both disaster recovery information and benefits applications in one place, but in many cases, survivors will probably still need your help.

One such benefit is Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA), which provides payments to those in federally-declared disaster areas who have lost their jobs as a direct result of the disaster and do not qualify for regular unemployment insurance. It’s important that the person is out of work as a direct result of the disaster; for example, eligible candidates have a workplace that was damaged or destroyed in the disaster, cannot reach their workplace by road or public transit, or sustained an injury that will prevent them from working.

FEMA’s Individuals and Households Grant Program (IHGP) is another service that comes into play in the wake of a disaster. Renters and homeowners can apply for up to $40,000 to replace appliances, furniture, automobiles, and clothing damaged in the storm and up to $200,000 to repair their primary residences.

In the meantime, IHGP applicants (as well as others) may qualify for Housing Needs Assistance (HNA). HNA can include government financial assistance for temporary housing, repairs to the primary residence, replacement of the home, and, as a last resort, permanent or semi-permanent housing construction. HNA is meant to help homeowners when insurance is not adequate to cover the damages; if a client has insurance or if the damaged property was a second home, HNA does not apply.

Furthermore, Other Than Housing Needs Assistance (OTHNA) is available to help defray the costs of disaster-related medical and dental expenses, funeral and burial expenses, household items, education- or job-related materials, fuel for heating, clean-up items, etc. Again, OTHNA is meant to fill in the gaps between someone’s insurance coverage and what they can actually pay. Usually, someone applying for OTHNA will be referred to a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan application; they will only be eligible for OTHNA if the SBA loan is denied. The exception to this rule is very low-income clients, so people receiving public assistance or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) should not be referred to an SBA loan. If someone fitting this description is referred to SBA, he or she should call FEMA to clarify their source of income.

This brings us to SBA loans and when they are appropriate. It’s a bit of a misnomer, since funds can be applied to business owners and non-owners alike; the loans (up to $2 million) are simply meant to cover uninsured or under-insured physical damage. This can include the repair or replacement of property, machinery and equipment, fixtures, inventory, and so on. The payments for repair can actually be increased by 20 percent of the value to protect damaged property against future storm damage. Applications are now available online.

Frequently, other new programs come into effect, but these can vary by area. These programs include emergency access to prescription medications, utility assistance, and more. A number of regular government assistance programs can also change to become more comprehensive in the wake of a disaster. Among these are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid and Medicare, Cash Assistance programs, and Supplemental Security Income. Look into changes to programs like these in your area following a disaster, or see the Disaster Relief Legal Assistance Manual put together by Legal Services NYC for more information on all of the programs discussed in this section.

Learning from Experience: New York City and Sandy

Recent examples of DLS getting involved in a disaster can be found in New York City in the aftermath of Sandy. Legal services organizations in NYC have been great about not only continuing to serve their communities in the weeks since Sandy, but about also making training materials and the fruits of their experience available to the rest of us. Check out New York Legal Assistance Group’s (NYLAG’s) slides on storm response, the Disaster Relief Legal Assistance Manual put together by Legal Services NYC (and referenced extensively above), and the website set up by the New York State Bar Association with information about the DLS hotline. All of them have information not just about FEMA legal services assistance, but also resources regarding Small Business Administration loans, Disaster Unemployment Assistance, housing issues, and more.

Volunteer house
(the "Volunteer House" in Joplin, MO. Photo by the author.)

If volunteering in disaster response situation is something that interests you, great! I can say from personal experience that it is a very stressful but extremely rewarding experience that I would encourage everyone to have at least once. Hopefully the resources and information above give you some idea of how the process works and where you can find more information; as a parting piece of advice I would also say that communications, collaboration, and flexibility are all critical skills in a disaster response situation, so be prepared and keep your eyes on the goal. If you have further ideas, experiences, or resources to share, please do so in the comments section!

Happy Wednesday everyone!