Civil Legal Aid Must Play a Larger Role in Disaster Recovery
I can barely believe it was 10 years ago that Hurricane Katrina upended our corner of the world. Almost two thousand lives were lost and there are damages of $108 billion dollars and counting, making it the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
In the terrible aftermath of a natural disaster, everyone recognizes the importance of water, food, and shelter as a first response. But one thing many people don’t think about is this: providing access to expert civil legal help is absolutely essential to rebuilding communities and lives.
Immediately after Katrina, people who had lost their jobs needed help getting their final paychecks from businesses and employers that no longer existed. Some landlords rented out damaged and dangerous properties with the promise of quick repairs that never happened. Other landlords found it profitable to rent out the same residence simultaneously to different desperate families.
Moreover, a year after the storm, FEMA, claiming it overpaid thousands of hurricane victims, sent more than 150,000 collection letters. Insurance companies claimed that much of the damage was due to flooding, and that the policies they had issued did not cover those losses. And, to qualify for repair funds, people whose family records had been destroyed by the storm or who had never officially filed documents in probate court suddenly needed to prove they owned houses that had been passed down for generations. These challenges were amplified for the region’s most financially vulnerable individuals and families.
For 10 years, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), a civil legal aid organization I run, has been on the front lines helping people recover from the storm. When a landlord displaced nearly 300 families in order to charge higher rent, we challenged him in court. When lack of clear property titles threatened the ability of homeowners to access millions of rebuilding funds administered by the government, our staff and volunteer attorneys helped them clear the legal hurdles. As scam contractors exploited families who were trying to rebuild their homes, legal aid attorneys held them accountable in court. I’m proud to say we have provided assistance to nearly 400,000 people. We continue to represent Katrina survivors today, as Katrina remains our single largest civil legal aid challenge in our nation’s history.
Unfortunately, we haven’t learned our lesson about the importance of providing civil legal aid after disasters. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, only $1 million out of the $60 billion appropriated by Congress was earmarked for civil legal aid.
If you have doubts about why we should make sure people have legal help, consider this: even today, SLLS is battling shady contractors who never rebuilt roofs or kitchens as promised, but took their customers’ money and skipped town. And FEMA—still claiming they overpaid people—is taking money from seniors’ social security checks.
I acknowledge that having access to a lawyer or some sort of legal support is not a magic fix. But it is an underappreciated model for how we should react to future disasters. Just as we have rebuilt even stronger levees to protect New Orleans, we should strengthen civil legal aid to protect our nation’s families and increase access to justice.