A Call to Action
America’s lawyers are stepping up to provide desperately needed free legal assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. These natural disasters have caused enormous human tragedy, but they have also precipitated one of the greatest legal services crises in our history.
The staggering and unprecedented level of human suffering experienced by victims of Hurricane Katrina fills us with great sorrow. While the damage resulting from Hurricane Rita was not as extensive, many people living in its path will require legal assistance as well.
The economic impact of the damage is vast, with ripple effects that will be felt for years to come. The unique culture, history and environment of the Gulf Coast region are also endangered. In the end, the social dislocation and upheaval left by the hurricanes may be the most difficult to assess and remedy. We must now rebuild not only cities, towns and industries, but also lives that have been shattered by these disasters. How will we do it?
One answer lies in the pursuit of justice for the victims, who are experiencing almost every conceivable legal need. As lawyers, we must do everything in our power to ensure that the people of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have the help they need to address the legal issues they will face in the short term and in the years to come.
The organized bar has responded quickly to this crisis. The ABA immediately set up 24hour hotlines in the affected states for people needing legal assistance. Even before Katrina had run its devastating course, the ABA formed the Task Force on Hurricane Katrina, chaired by former ABA President N. Lee Cooper of Birmingham, Ala. We established a Web site, www.abanet.org/katrina, to provide legal information to victims and to recruit volunteer lawyers to help them.
In the weeks following the hurricanes, thousands of lawyers signed up to donate their services. We began working with state and local legal aid providers and bar associations to match lawyers with people in need, and our efforts are ongoing.
Those affected by the hurricanes need help recreating identification and ownership records, and replacing wills and other lost documents. They need help with insurance claims, mortgage foreclosures and estate administration. As they work to rebuild their lives, homes and businesses, they will need help with consumer protection issues and repair contracts. Children separated from parents or orphaned are among the most vulnerable. Experienced and dedicated attorneys are needed to ensure that guardianships and conservatorships are executed in the best interests of children and families.
Thousands of lawyers, many of them ABA members, live or work in areas affected by the hurricanes. We are helping them re-establish their practices. In the weeks after the hurricanes, hundreds of law firms contacted the ABA to offer temporary office space for displaced lawyers.
The scope of these disasters requires solutions that are big, bold and far-reaching. That is why the ABA is executing a coordinated, long-term strategy to address the legal needs of victims and to restore the justice system in affected areas. The task force has reached out to other organizations and government agencies to coordinate the legal response to the hurricanes. The ABA has also assisted federal and state courts in affected areas.
As the scope of the victims’ legal needs becomes more apparent, America’s lawyers are answering the call to duty. These disasters will require unprecedented pro bono legal assistance and stronger advocacy for increased funding of legal aid programs. The ABA and its 407,000 members are leading the way. We will provide free legal services to all hurricane victims who cannot afford a lawyer for as long as it takes to get them back on their feet.
I commend all lawyers who are doing their part to help those affected by Katrina and Rita, and I urge every lawyer in America to volunteer. There could be no clearer definition of public service than helping the victims of this disaster. This is a defining moment for the legal profession. Now is the time for all lawyers to demonstrate to the American people what our profession stands for.