Amid Virus, Disaster Attorneys Struggle To Reach Survivors

September 22, 2020

Brittanny Perrigue, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, is no stranger to disaster. The community she serves sits in the floodplain of the river that carves Texas' southern border.

In 2018 and 2019, in what the National Weather Service dubbed "The Great June Floods," torrential rains filled the valley. Residents used boats to navigate at least two feet of standing water in the streets. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave $30 million residents impacted in 2018 and $12 million to survivors of the 2019 disaster.

This July brought more flooding when Hurricane Hanna left 18 inches to four feet of water in the valley. But this time, the storm's winds, which reached 85 miles per hour in some places, added to the damage toppled trees, snapped power lines and roofs torn from buildings.

But Perrigue hasn't connected with nearly as many clients as in years past. In 2018, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid took on 279 disaster-related cases. In 2019, the organization had 208. This year, it only has 60.

That's because every aspect of the response effort has been done from a distance.

Usually after a bad storm, Perrigue sets up a booth at a FEMA disaster recovery center — a one-stop resource fair for survivors, where she can meet new clients and help them with not only federal disaster claims, but benefits, landlord-tenant issues and a host of other problems that might not immediately seem to be within the purview of a lawyer.

But there was no center after Hanna, because FEMA still has not decided whether the July storm merits "individual assistance" money for disaster survivors.

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