Disaster Recovery and civil legal aid

Townhouses destroyed by Hurricane Andrew
“Destroyed House After Hurricane Andrew, Cutler Ridge, Florida, 1992” (photo StevenM_61, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the wake of natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, civil legal aid is an essential tool for recovery.

The legal issues that arise in the wake of natural disasters can be devastating and last for years. Without legal help, it becomes harder to avoid foreclosure, eviction and bankruptcy, deal with insurance companies and FEMA, and protect yourself against contractor fraud.

Graphic: Civil legal aid work after Hurricane Katrina
Civil legal aid work in the ten years after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: Courtesy of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS),

How civil legal aid helps disaster recovery

Helps residents fight red tape and get relief funds they deserve

Civil legal aid helps people access the funds they deserve, and reduces the number of qualified applicants that relief programs erroneously reject.

After tornadoes and all manner of disasters in Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, legal aid lawyers helped broken families and businesses file insurance, FEMA and unemployment claims.

HUD’s review showed that New Jersey’s contractor wrongly rejected thousands of applicants affected by Hurricane Sandy. Similarly, Mississippi disqualified some 4,000 eligible applicants for housing recovery assistance they had been waiting for since Katrina struck. Vigilant monitoring by civil legal aid lawyers and their community partners led to a re-evaluation of the applications and an additional allocation of $40 million to help families during the long-delayed recovery.

Helps low-income and middle-income people get attention

Following a disaster, housing recovery policies give too little attention to the needs and circumstances of low-income and middle-income people.

After Katrina, for example, hundreds of Mississippi families whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged did not have clear title to their property. If local legal aid programs and hundreds of pro bono lawyers had not intervened, these families likely would have been unable to receive assistance under the state’s guidelines. Working together, they negotiated with the state to change the eligibility policy, securing millions in housing recovery assistance for families who needed it most.

Leverages pro bono lawyers

Local legal aid programs can best marshal the resources of pro bono lawyers eager to volunteer their help.

This kind of legal assistance is essential to prevent wrongful evictions, obtain repairs to damaged housing, go after contractor fraud, and contest inappropriate denials of insurance claims.

Funding civil legal aid is essential to disaster recovery

Federal recovery plans often overlook programs that can provide the legal assistance and advocacy survivors need to get back on their feet.

Even if federal policymakers have been slow to learn from past mistakes, advocates for survivors of disasters have learned from past efforts. Following Sandy, the Fair Share Housing Center in New Jersey lobbied for important changes in HUD’s rules by drawing on the experience of Katrina advocates. Such changes can go a long way in ensuring the most vulnerable members of our communities are provided for.

Out of $51 billion in disaster recovery funds for Sandy, Congress allocated $1 million for legal aid. That’s more than was allocated after Katrina, but still not nearly enough.

In the wake of Sandy, the exemplary service of New York and New Jersey legal aid programs has shown that these are essential efforts worth funding. Only when recovery efforts dedicate sufficient resources for civil legal aid will all survivors of disasters have the information and resources they need to rebuild their lives.

Former Voices for Civil Justice Executive Director Martha Bergmark is a native of Mississppi. She was running a civil legal aid organization in Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina. She shares some of her wisdom here:
First Katrina, Now Sandy: Three Mistakes We Keep Making After Natural Disasters