Posted Feb 22, 2006 08:14 am CST
By the time victims of Hurricane Katrina started contacting disaster relief centers in search of legal advice, lawyers organized by the ABA already were there waiting for them.
By mid-September, the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division had established 24-hour toll-free hotlines in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to help steer hurricane victims to sources of assistance for their legal concerns.
It’s vital to have that kind of help in place when the calls start coming in, says Rani Newman Mathura of Greenwich, Conn., coordinator of the YLD’s Disaster Legal Services Team.
When disaster strikes, it takes people awhile to know they need legal services, says Mathura. “When you’re involved in a disaster, what you need first and foremost is food, clothing and shelter. The calls come in when people have their lives situated.”
The YLD has been answering disaster calls since 1978, when it began an arrangement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate legal assistance for victims of natural disasters. In addition, the legal services team provided assistance to victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Just getting access to working telephones to begin operating hotlines was a challenge for YLD volunteers in the wake of Katrina, which swept through Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in August, Mathura says.
“It’s very difficult to set up a hotline when the phone lines are knocked out,” says Mathura, who applauds telephone company workers for getting phone lines operating during the same week that Katrina struck. In the interim, she says, “we tried to temper that problem with sending more people into FEMA’s disaster recovery centers. You sort of roll with the punches.”
Through early December, the YLD’s hotlines received nearly 14,000 calls, mostly in Louisiana and Mississippi, Mathura says. She expects the numbers to continue increasing in 2006 as hurricane victims sort out legal issues ranging from insurance and housing matters to domestic relations cases and business concerns. (Another hotline was established for Texas residents after Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast later in the fall.)
Although the YLD’s disaster team was able to hit the ground running when Katrina struck, a number of other ABA sections, divisions, committees and other entities were not far behind in gearing up their own assistance efforts. (Activities conducted by specific groups are described throughout the ABA’s Web site, www.abanet.org.)
Sometimes the assistance came in the form of funding. The sections of Antitrust Law and Litigation, for instance, pooled resources into a $230,000 grant to increase staffing at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in the New Orleans area and Acadiana Legal Services in and around Lake Charles and Lafayette.
The funding was productive because groups like those “have the infrastructures in place already to assist people who cannot afford civil legal representation,” says Louisiana State Bar Association president Frank Neuner of Lafayette.
Other projects are getting various ABA entities involved more directly on the ground in legal assistance efforts in the Gulf Coast hurricane zones.
In September, for instance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provided $300,000 in funding to support efforts by the ABA Center on Children and the Law to address issues relating to children and families in state child welfare systems affected by Katrina.
The center is teaming with the National Center for State Courts and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges on the yearlong project.
“We want to be developing material that will be helpful the next time something like this happens,” says Howard A. Davidson, director of the Center on Children and the Law.
“There certainly will be other disasters where abused and neglected children will have to relocate.”
The project has a three-pronged approach: It seeks to locate any children who were separated from their foster families during the turmoil after Katrina, identify lawyers with expertise in child welfare who will be available to volunteer their services following disasters, and assess the legal issues that arise in the wake of widespread disasters.
After Katrina, 4,940 children, some of them in foster care, were initially reported missing or displaced, Davidson says. Of those children, 4,455 were located, he notes.
“When children are missing from foster care—kids who have been abused, neglected or abandoned—they are the most vulnerable,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Criminal Justice Section raised concerns about the plight of some individuals arrested for minor crimes amid the chaos of Katrina. It detailed some of the problems in an ABA white paper summarizing the work of various association entities after the hurricane.
“From several lawyers we hear of individuals arrested for minor crimes the night before and the night of the hurricane who were abandoned in prisons with those serving time for more serious crimes,” according to the white paper. “Many nearly drowned as they were locked in cells, the doors of which would not open after the power went out.” The white paper went on to describe problems faced by arrestees after they were released. “Many [were] taken to a sports field holding 8,000 evacuees for three days without food and water and then loaded onto buses crowded with handcuffed inmates and driven to remote facilities by exhausted drivers, one of whom fell asleep and wrecked into power lines, shocking passengers.”
The problems of people displaced from low-end housing are being addressed by a different ABA entity the Forum Committee on Affordable Housing and Community Development Law.
Most of those left homeless by Katrina had been living in low-income housing, says forum committee chair Ronald M. Katz of Indianapolis. He cites estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition that more than 70 percent of the 302,000 housing units destroyed by Katrina were affordable or low-income.
In response, says Katz, the forum is setting up three programs. A national conference that will address specific issues relating to Katrina, as well as the broader impact of natural disasters, will be held Feb. 23-24 in St. Louis.
In May, the forum’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., will address poverty issues in the wake of Katrina. A third program may be held in August during the 2006 ABA Annual Meeting in Honolulu.
In the first months following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the most important resource offered by the ABA, other bars and the legal profession generally has been human. Nearly 2,000 volunteer attorneys are helping out in hurricane-devastated areas. By the count of the ABA Center for Pro Bono, at least 1,800 lawyers have signed up through the ABA Web site to volunteer their legal services in Louisiana and other states that suffered hurricane damage last fall.
The response by the ABA and lawyers “has been nothing short of phenomenal,” says N. Lee Cooper of Birmingham, Ala., a past ABA president who chairs the association’s Task Force on Hurricane Katrina. “Thousands of lawyers have volunteered millions of dollars of time helping the victims of Katrina, and the Katrina task force has served to motivate and energize various ABA entities.”
Sometimes the work these lawyers are doing is more practical than legal in nature, but that doesn’t make it any less rewarding, says Stacie Zorn, president of the Jackson County Bar Association in Mississippi who is doing volunteer work with Katrina victims. Zorn recalls one elderly man who came to the FEMA disaster recovery center in Ocean Springs, a Gulf town near Biloxi, with what appeared to be a simple eviction question. The man had allowed a couple to move into his storm-damaged Biloxi home with the understanding that they would make repairs in lieu of rent. Meanwhile, the man went to live in a friend’s abandoned business, where he pitched a tent, Zorn says.
As the weeks passed and the tenants did nothing to fix his home, the man became concerned, Zorn says. “They had been there for some weeks and did nothing,” she says. “He was living in a tent. He was scared to even go there to take a shower.”
Zorn told him his problem could be resolved by telling the people to move out after all, they were not on the lease and had no legal claim to the property. But then she took him around to various tables at the disaster recovery center to collect information on how to get the Army Corps of Engineers to come out and put a blue tarp on his damaged roof and to obtain food stamps.
“He had that one simple legal question,” Zorn says. “He gave me the biggest hug and cried and cried and cried. He came back with a friend who is legally blind. He said, ‘You showed me what to do and now I’m showing her.’ He had the most beautiful blue eyes and there were so many tears in them, and to be able to wipe those tears away was really something.”