September 19, 2008
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Washington, DC - Texas and Louisiana programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation have launched efforts to ensure civil legal aid is available to persons displaced or affected by hurricanes Ike and Gustav.
In Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid has started mobilizing two-person legal teams to work at local shelters and provide assistance. All of the 29 Texas counties declared federal disaster areas are in the program's service area.
Ike slammed into Texas on Sept. 12, causing flooding, property damage and widespread power outages from the coast through the Houston area, and knocked out the Galveston and Beaumont offices of Lone Star Legal Aid. Gustav roared across Louisiana on Sept. 1, and walloped the four LSC-funded programs in the state; the western region of the state also got hit by Ike. But program officials in Texas and Louisiana moved quickly to reroute services and resume operations.
Gustav hit Louisiana almost three years to the day when Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast. LSC-funded programs in Louisiana, Texas and other parts of the region continue to handle cases related to Katrina and another 2005 hurricane, Rita.
"The Texas and Louisiana programs are resilient and resourceful, and we applaud their dedication," LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said. "Ensuring that low-income individuals and families are able to obtain legal assistance, especially at a time of grave hardship, is a critical part of the nation's disaster recovery response."
Following disasters, LSC-funded programs provide low-income Americans with legal aid on matters ranging from temporary housing, rent-gouging, evictions, foreclosures, disaster assistance, consumer fraud, and family issues that arise because of disaster-related distress.
In Texas, the State Bar has established a legal aid hotline (800-504-7030) that is answered by Lone Star Legal Aid in English and Spanish and intended to help people with basic legal questions.
Paul Furrh, executive director of Lone Star Legal Aid, said his program's experience with Katrina and Rita showed that people need important information early on in the recovery process. Given the scope of the damage caused by Ike, "I expect this is going to take a big share of our time for the next couple of years," he said.
In Louisiana, nine of the ten parishes designated by the president as disaster areas because of Hurricane Ike are served by the Acadiana Legal Services Corporation. "Coming on the heels of Hurricane Gustav, ALSC will be facing unprecedented challenges to our delivery system as the effects of the storm lead to critical civil legal problems for our client community," Joseph R. Oelkers III, the program's executive director, said.
At the Capital Area Legal Services Corporation in Baton Rouge, executive director James A. Wayne Sr. activated his emergency response plan after Gustav and reassigned staff to work in the program's Baton Rouge and Gonzales offices. The program's two other offices, in Donaldsonville and Houma, were closed.
The Houma office, which has the program's second highest caseload, is in a building that has been condemned. Wayne is working with the parish president and presiding judge on how best to restore legal aid services in Houma.
"We are coping with the situation," Wayne said.
Other LSC-funded programs in Louisiana are Legal Services of North Louisiana in Shreveport, where Alma S. Jones is executive director, and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services Corporation in Hammond, where Brian D. Lenard and Mark Moreau serve as co-directors.
"Civil legal problems inevitably follow disasters, and we are planning the design of our response by relying heavily on our experiences in the wake of prior hurricanes," Oelkers said.