Legal Aid Offices in Midwest Helping Clients Displaced by Flooding

July 11, 2008

July 11, 2008


Swamped Office in Iowa Quickly Reopens to Offer Assistance

Washington, DC--Legal aid offices across the Midwest are gearing up for a surge in their workload caused by the recent flooding. In Iowa, one legal aid office was swamped by floodwaters but quickly relocated to continue providing services to clients.

Iowa Legal Aid expects to see an increase in requests for help in coming weeks as many Iowans begin to file insurance claims and request assistance with paperwork required by federal and state agencies, Dennis Groenenboom, executive director of Iowa Legal Aid, said.

The first wave of requests for help, though, has involved landlord-tenant issues. A common question, Groenenboom said, is, "If your apartment has flooded and you can't get in, do you still owe rent?"

Iowa Legal Aid and Indiana Legal Services are receiving calls about landlord-tenant issues, and both offices are expediting work on the cases because of the disruption caused to their communities by the recent floods.

"We have been trying to stay on top of it. It has been overwhelming," Erica Burns, executive assistant to the Indiana Legal Services executive director, said.

Five Midwestern states--Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin--are cleaning up after some of the worst flooding in at least a century. River levees were breached, thousands evacuated and property damaged in the billions of dollars.

In Iowa, the governor has declared 83 of 99 counties to be state disaster areas. Sixty-two of the counties have been declared presidential disaster areas eligible for individual assistance and 77 for public assistance. In Indiana, 29 counties were designated as disaster areas, with 18 counties in the central part of the state heavily damaged by flooding.

Legal aid offices in the Midwest are providing attorneys to give advice to eligible residents on how to apply for federal assistance, help them appeal denials of federal aid and assist with the filing of insurance claims. Legal aid offices also provide representation in any civil legal matter related to the disaster.

The Midwest offices are grantees of the Legal Services Corporation, which provides the single largest source of funding for civil legal aid to low-income individuals and families. LSC has 137 grantees, with more than 900 offices and 8,500 staff, who work across the nation.

"Every time disaster strikes, people teetering on the edge of poverty are pushed over it, and people who were already poor are bombarded with a new set of legal problems-all of which leads to increased caseloads for our already underfunded and overburdened legal aid programs," Helaine M. Barnett, the president of LSC, said.

"Increased funding is crucial to ensure our grantees can provide emergency services to those affected, and to meet their increased needs," she said.

LSC convenes biweekly telephone calls with state programs across the nation, the American Bar Association and other partners to monitor ongoing issues concerning natural disasters throughout the country, including the Midwest flooding.

The flooding has been particularly tough on Iowa Legal Aid. Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in Iowa, was hit hard by the flooding. Orders to evacuate were posted on June 11, and severe flooding plagued the city for the next four days.

The floodwaters in Cedar Rapids rose to the top of the ceiling on the first floor office space of the legal aid office. Files in the basement were destroyed, and files kept on the first floor were damaged but are being cleaned and restored, Groenenboom said.

Fortunately, the office's computers and most of its records were on the third floor and escaped damage, he said.

Iowa Legal Aid staff scrambled to find new office space, settling on a location near the city's airport. It turned out to be a good choice, because the courthouse also relocated near the airport.

Current projections indicate that the courthouse will be in temporary quarters for at least six months as crews clean up the city and restore electrical power. Groenenboom hopes that Legal Aid will be able to move back to its downtown office sooner but said that "projections are all over the map now."

Although in temporary quarters, "we are able to respond to and address legal problems confronting the community," he said, noting that "this community won't be stabilized for months or years."

Staff from other Iowa Legal Aid Offices around the state also are assisting clients in the Cedar Rapids area, he said.

Legal Aid attorneys are staffing emergency shelters set up in Cedar Rapids by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, helping Iowans eligible for free legal assistance sort out their options for housing and relief services.

In addition, Iowa Legal Aid staff members are taking calls routed through a hot line set up by the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association. The hotline transfers calls from low-income individuals and from persons who are age 60 and older to Iowa Legal Aid, Groenenboom said.

The Cedar Rapids staff began working out of the temporary office near the airport on June 23. New computer laptops with broadband service were purchased and telephone lines were installed, allowing the temporary office to basically provide full service to clients.

Other Iowa Legal Aid offices also were disrupted by the flooding. The Waterloo office, for example, closed for a few days because access to the downtown was blocked. Mason City lost its water supply, prompting authorities to close buildings.

Some Iowa Legal Aid employees also are victims of the flooding. Flooding wrecked one staff member's home and significantly damaged the homes of two other staff members, Groenenboom said.

Despite the hardship and confusion caused by the flooding, Groenenboom said staff members have worked hard to continue to provide services to the eligible clients. "The staff resources put into this, necessarily, have been phenomenal," he said.

In Indiana, the Bloomington office of Indiana Legal Services has handed out legal brochures at FEMA recovery centers. The state bar association and judges have been consulted "to see what else we can do," Burns said.

Indiana Legal Services has consulted with the American Red Cross and handed out legal aid information at an emergency center in Indianapolis. In Washington, the Legal Services Corporation has worked with the Red Cross to establish a nationwide collaborative partnership.

Outreach efforts also are underway in Missouri. The Legal Services of Eastern Missouri is working with the Red Cross to assess legal aid needs in Lincoln County, where floodwaters breached Mississippi River levees, Daniel K. Glazier, executive director for LSEM, said.

"Until we get things sorted out, we have set up a preferential process, to expedite intake of people affected by the floods, to help get them in their homes or out of their homes, whatever the case," Burns said.

Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. The Corporation currently provides funding to 132 independent nonprofit legal aid programs in every state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.