This summer, nearly one on three Americans have experienced a meteorological disaster. Hurricane Ida alone hit hundreds of thousands people in Louisiana and along the east coast, and climate change is causing disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires and floods more likely. Extreme weather events such as these completely disrupt lives, damaging homes and property, affecting health and well-being, and taking a heavy financial toll.
Of course, people often think of food, water and shelter as the main needs after a disaster, but this is far from the reality. People face challenges such as applying for benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), resolving disputes over insurance claims, clearing title deeds, and protecting themselves from unscrupulous contractors and illegal evictions.
The legal needs that emerge after a disaster are complex and difficult to manage without a lawyer. Yet, for far too many people, effective legal assistance remains elusive.
There is a national shortage of lawyers to help low-income individuals and families recover from the legal effects of disasters. Surprisingly, the National Center for Access to Justice reported that in most states and territories, there is only one legal aid lawyer available for every 10,000 people living in poverty. And the research of the Brooking Institution have shown that people with physical and mental disabilities, people and communities of color, and low-income individuals and families are more vulnerable to disaster risk and struggle the most when it comes to restoring their lives and livelihoods. sustenance thereafter.
With the frequency and severity of weather-related disasters already on the rise, we need to invest in a long-term solution for disaster preparedness: public advocates.
Having more public interest lawyers on the ground in disaster-prone areas is a crucial part of disaster preparedness and recovery. On the one hand, lawyers level the playing field, providing marginalized people and communities with the tools and resources to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. Lawyers can also help remove barriers to just recovery and increase the capacity of legal service organizations to better meet the needs of disaster survivors during the recovery phase.
Consider this: In 2017, we witnessed the power of a group of disaster lawyers when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated much of Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast. The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, a legal scholarship program established by Equal Justice Works, mobilized a group of 23 public interest lawyers to provide free civil legal services to communities affected by these hurricanes and other disasters in Texas and Florida. At the end of the two-year program, 90 percent Participating legal services organizations reported increased capacity to serve disaster survivors in their communities and contributed $ 3.25 million in combined economic benefits in the form of FEMA assistance, housing stability, employment, wage protection and more for their clients.
Currently in Louisiana, New Jersey and New York, survivors of Hurricane Ida need legal services in response to the deadly storm. Had more public interest lawyers been on the ground before the hurricane, proactive efforts could have alleviated the burden they now face, increasing the capacity and willingness to help survivors, engaging in community education and outreach to publicize available services, or in cultivating relationships within the community to create a referral network for clients.
This should be an essential aspect of disaster preparedness.
Public interest lawyers strive to advance equality of justice. In so doing, not only do they ensure equitable recovery in disaster-affected communities, but through their commitment to public service, they help lay the groundwork for lasting solutions that can help build stronger and more resilient communities for the future.
In this National Preparedness Month, I call on the legal community to come together to deepen investments and facilitate sustained support for public interest law, so that we can make equal justice a reality for all.
Linda Anderson Stanley is the Senior Director of Disaster Programming at Equal Justice Works, a national non-profit organization dedicated to mobilizing junior lawyers to pursue careers in public service. She is currently serving her third term as Director of the Disaster Legal Services Program in the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association (ABA YLD) and is an Assistant Professor of Disaster Law at Stetson University College of Law.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.