The Role Of Legal Aid In Disaster Recovery

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, legal services providers are a critical component of comprehensive disaster relief. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has expertise in working with and supporting a network of national and local partners to help LSC-funded legal aid programs serve low-income clients when disasters or emergencies occur. Through a coordinated national infrastructure, LSC grantees provide access to resources and information vital for communities to respond to disasters and emergencies.  

When disasters strike, LSC grantees mobilize attorneys to provide pro bono legal assistance and direct representation to low-income survivors in affected communities. Working in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross, the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association, state and local bars, as well as other national and local recovery organizations, LSC-funded programs set up hotlines and staff FEMA disaster recovery centers. 

Legal challenges can haunt disaster survivors for years as they seek to replace identification papers such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and Social Security cards; apply for disaster benefits; and deal with insurance claims. Many survivors face a variety of other legal issues ranging from preventing unlawful evictions and foreclosures to combating contractor scams. Some survivors need assistance with school transfers and transportation. Disasters have a far-reaching impact, but low-income families and individuals are most vulnerable when disaster strikes. These individuals require disaster preparedness planning support, and in the event of a disaster, they need experts who understand the legal issues involved. LSC grantees can help survivors with the following:  

  • Family Assistance: obtain emergency child custody, visitation, support, and other court orders requiring modification as a result of displacement, injury, or job loss.  
  • Housing Assistance: help homeowners secure temporary housing, file insurance claims, apply for home repair assistance, negotiate with landlords to make necessary repairs to damaged homes, and protect renters from illegal evictions.  
  • Identification and Documentation Recovery: replace important legal documents like personal identification cards, property titles, orders of protection, and end-of-life documents (which are often necessary to apply for disaster relief benefits and insurance proceeds). 
  • Emergency Benefits: help families get emergency food stamps and FEMA benefits to pay for rent and other expenses, including disaster-related unemployment insurance benefits. 


LSC’s Response to Natural Disasters  

Since Hurricane Katrina, LSC has developed an extensive coordinated response program to assist disaster victims. LSC grantees have taken the lead in assisting and successfully representing disaster survivors to secure or retain housing, prepare and file insurance claims, obtain replacements of personal documents, navigate complex benefits programs including FEMA assistance, and deal with repair contractors. In 2008, after Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area, Lone Star Legal Aid helped more than 7,400 survivors with legal issues, including 5,841 housing cases.  

LSC has a proven track record of using emergency supplemental appropriations in response to natural disasters efficiently and effectively. In response to Hurricane Sandy, Congress appropriated nearly $1 million to LSC to assist survivors in affected areas in New York and New Jersey. With this funding, Legal Services NYC handled more than 6,000 cases. LSC grantees recruited and trained pro bono attorneys to represent survivors with complex legal issues in the wake of the hurricane. Legal aid staff and pro bono attorneys handled insurance and repair issues, including FEMA claims. Disaster funding was also used to create self-help tools, including on-line programs regarding insurance, small business and non-profit relief, contractor fraud, repair actions, and increases in flood insurance premiums.  

In February 2018, Congress appropriated $15 million to LSC to assist low-income survivors affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma, and the California fires. The emergency supplemental appropriation for LSC is limited to mobile resources, technology, and disaster coordinators. LSC is developing a grant application process to award the disaster funding to grantees in the affected communities.  


Disaster Task Force 

The LSC Board of Directors created a Disaster Task Force in April 2018 to take a comprehensive approach to preparing for disasters and assisting low-income survivors recover from the impact of a disaster. LSC Board Vice Chair Martha Minow, LSC Board member Father Pius Pietrzyk, and former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman are serving as co-chairs of the Task Force. Members of the Task Force include more than 50 leaders from the business, legal, and emergency management communities; LSC grantees; and other stakeholders. The primary goals of the Task Force are to:   

  • Engage the business and emergency management communities in partnering with legal aid providers to develop a systematic approach to preparing for and responding to the legal needs of low-income Americans who have experienced a disaster;   
  • Develop a formal and organized infrastructure to share expertise and train emergency managers and first responders and communities to recognize the legal issues in preparing for a disaster, as well as to provide coordinated referrals to legal services providers who can address those legal needs; and  
  • Develop a formal and organized infrastructure of emergency managers, first responders, businesses, and pro bono and legal services organizations that will coordinate between disasters and be ready to act when a disaster occurs. 


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