Natural Disasters

New report outlines how legal services can prepare for and respond to disasters

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A new report from the Legal Services Corp.'s Disaster Task Force counts 537 presidential disaster-related declarations, including 288 major disaster declarations, from January 2014 to July 2019.

According to the report, which was released Wednesday, there have been 67 disasters during this time period that each exceeded more than $1 billion in damages. It also found that the total cost of all disasters is more than $500 billion, and that more than 3,800 people lost their lives.

“It will take years for the hardest hit communities to fully recover; low-income survivors are typically the hardest hit by a disaster and will face significant obstacles in their path to recovery,” the report states.

The Legal Services Corp.’s board of directors established the Disaster Task Force in April 2018 to connect the emergency management community, legal services providers, private bar, judiciary, community-based organizations and the business community to ensure that low-income survivors receive legal assistance after disasters, according to the task force’s website.

Its report offers recommendations on how legal services providers can collaborate with their outside partners to help vulnerable communities respond in disaster situations and emergencies.

Those recommendations focus on including legal services organizations in planning discussions about national disaster preparation; training pro bono lawyers, legal services providers and other volunteers to recognize civil legal issues related to disasters; encouraging legal services providers and the courts to maintain disaster plans and urging states to adopt model court reforms for post-disaster recovery; and helping individuals, families and their communities better prepare for disasters.

“Despite legal aid’s potential in the aftermath of disaster, there can be a significant gap in the disaster-response landscape when there is a lack of a coordinated effort to deal with the legal needs of disaster survivors,” the report states. “Most emergency management and disaster-response organizations are unaware of the legal issues faced by disaster survivors and the particular needs of low-income communities.”

“Legal services providers have deep networks in low-income communities and have experience creating access for people who face barriers to services and information,” the report added.

Former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman; Martha Minow, Harvard University’s 300th anniversary university professor and Legal Services Corp. board vice chair; and Legal Services Corp. board member Father Pius Pietrzyk co-chair the task force. Its members include emergency management experts, representatives from Legal Services Corp.-funded legal aid programs and members of the judiciary.

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