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How your peers are helping disaster survivors

Friday, November 01, 2019

How your peers are helping disaster survivors

"In August 1969, Hurricane Camille ripped through the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall in Waveland, Miss., as a Category 5 hurricane. At the time, it was only the second Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the United States. Camille destroyed nearly every structure along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, killing 239 people and causing nearly $10 billion in damages.

The Mississippi Bar’s Young Lawyer Section took immediate action by creating a Disaster Relief Committee—the first of its kind—to provide free legal assistance to disaster survivors. After Camille, it became obvious to the American Bar Association and its Young Lawyers Division that a national organization assisting with disaster response, recovery, and preparedness could be of great assistance to state and local programs. In 1973, the ABA YLD and the Office of Emergency Preparedness— the modern-day equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency—executed a formal agreement outlining the delivery of legal services to disaster survivors.

Forty-five years later, disasters continue to affect communities on a local and even regional scale. In the past two years alone, the Disaster Legal Services program responded to 41 natural disasters across the United States and its territories.

Lawyers play an important role in post-disaster recovery. Often, people think of food, water, and shelter as the only needs after a disaster. However, legal issues also arise soon after the incident. Disasters don’t discriminate, but it should come as no surprise that disasters hit the poor the hardest.

Since many problems arising from a disaster have a legal solution, access to free legal services is an imperative factor in giving the poor a fighting chance at recovery.

Today, federal disaster law is codified in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1998. Through the Stafford Act, FEMA is mandated to provide disaster legal services at no cost to individuals who have insufficient means to obtain legal assistance. The ABA YLD, through its Memorandum of Understanding with FEMA, serves as the exclusive coordinator of those services.

Over the years, the program has evolved from providing legal information and advice into a program that provides a full range of assistance in a variety of civil legal services, such as pursuing claims against insurance companies, landlords, contractors, FEMA, and other agencies. It also does such work as helping survivors clear title to their homes, replace vital documents, and create such important documents as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.

Through the DLS program, thousands of new lawyers provide free legal advice and representation to hundreds of thousands of disaster survivors in the United States and its territories. Although DLS is the touchstone public service program of the ABA YLD, many non-YLD attorneys, paralegals, and law students devote a significant amount of time to ensure the success of this program.

How students help after disasters

Law students have a long history of helping disaster survivors. Probably the most notable effort in this area is the response after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. After Katrina, a handful of law students affected by the hurricane created the Student Hurricane Network, which existed from 2005 to 2010 to help coordinate nearly 5,500 law students from 110 law schools to help with the legal needs in New Orleans. For half a decade, law students would commonly go to New Orleans as an “alternative spring break” or other short duration to perform legal work in the community.

After Superstorm Sandy, Touro College—Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center created a help center designed to provide legal advice and information to those impacted by the storm. Touro’s help center evolved into a full-service disaster clinic—one of the first of its kind—that operated from 2012 to 2019. Touro’s clinic not only had involvement from its staff and students but also more than 120 law students from six countries..."

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