Legal Aid Programs Mobilize to Help Storm Victims in South

May 6, 2011

May 6, 2011


Washington, DC—Legal aid programs throughout the South are mobilizing to provide legal help to low-income residents affected by the recent, deadly tornadoes that destroyed countless homes across the region.

The federal government has issued major disaster declarations for Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee following the outbreak of tornadoes—the largest in U.S. history—that killed hundreds of people and caused billions of dollars in estimated damage. Meanwhile, large amounts of rain and snow melt have caused flooding along the Mississippi River, including in Missouri and Tennessee, that has threatened homes and businesses.

LSC-funded programs in communities affected by the tornadoes are undertaking a series of initiatives to help low-income citizens, including collaborations with the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The LSC programs will be helping disaster victims obtain FEMA and other government disaster-related benefits; assisting with life, medical and property insurance claims; replacing wills and other important legal documents destroyed in the storms; providing counsel on mortgage-foreclosure problems, and counseling on landlord-tenant matters.

“Our hearts go out to all those affected by this devastation,” LSC President James J. Sandman said. “I commend the LSC-funded programs for their quick response in providing civil legal assistance and in helping people restore some order in their lives. I also want to thank the local and state bar associations, law schools, Red Cross, FEMA and others who collaborate with legal aid programs to deliver services under such challenging circumstances.”

Legal Services Alabama has begun a large-scale, coordinated effort to provide civil legal assistance in the state that was hardest hit by the deadly storms. The Alabama program is collecting information on shelters and disaster recovery centers throughout the state, on the most pressing needs for each legal services office, on the immediate legal needs in each storm-damaged community and on the number of people who have been left homeless.

David Webster, a supervising attorney in the Anniston office of Legal Services Alabama, drove across Northeast Alabama this week and found that “almost every town I went through was hit—houses damaged or destroyed, power lines still on the road and downed poles, trees lying everywhere. . . . A lot of the power grid infrastructure is simply gone.” A disaster resource center is opening in Gadsden in a building with legal aid offices, “so we will be very close. . . and maybe there will be other locations where we can place a legal aid representative.”

The Alabama program is working with the four volunteer lawyer projects in the state, all of which receive funding from the program. The state bar’s Young Lawyers Program is working with FEMA representatives in federal centers, and the University of Alabama School of Law is opening a clinic to help people fill out FEMA paperwork and answer questions. Legal Services Alabama also has produced informational fliers on how to deal with contractors for repairs, how to terminate a lease because of storm damage, and what kinds of benefits are available to victims.

As a general matter, LSC programs do not see an increase in requests for assistance until about 30 days after a disaster, in part because the first wave of emergency response focuses on providing basic survival needs, such as food and shelter. Legal requests often focus on landlord-tenant matters, insurance claims and disaster benefits. In Alabama, for example, tenants have 14 days to give notice that they are terminating a lease on destroyed or damaged rental property or they could be liable. Other possible early requests for legal assistance may involve child-custody agreements affected by a parent’s death and child-support payments that have not been made because of storm-related issues.

The Georgia Legal Services Program is part of the state’s emergency management system, which is establishing disaster assistance centers in 13 locations. These centers are staffed by representatives from FEMA, the Red Cross, the state Department for Family and Children’s Services and, upon request, the Georgia Legal Services Program. The Floyd County and Walker County disaster centers have requested that legal aid attorneys be available, and the program is responding to requests for legal assistance. The program also is preparing informational brochures and working with the state bar’s Young Lawyers Division to screen and accept referrals from their hotline.

Legal Aid of East Tennessee has been in touch with its Red Cross partners and multiple United Way affiliates and is working with bar associations and disaster centers. The state attorney general has issued a warning about scams and fraudulent contractors promising to repair damage to roofs and cars, and the LSC program expects to see an increase in requests for legal assistance in coming weeks.

Devastating storms also hit Mississippi, and LSC programs in the state have been in touch with emergency officials. Areas served by North Mississippi Rural Legal Services were severely damaged, and the program has provided the Red Cross with brochures for placement in informational packets and will be publicizing the program’s hotline number in newspapers.

The rising Mississippi River, meanwhile, is creating challenges for LSC-funded programs in several areas. Memphis, Tenn., for example, has flooding in downtown streets, forcing authorities to close streets and to urge residents to leave areas where homes are being threatened. Memphis Area Legal Services has a hotline set up for legal assistance and is coordinating referrals to volunteer attorneys with the Tennessee Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division.

“We know that people are going to need legal services in the South and LSC will do its best to coordinate information-sharing and best practices with local legal aid programs,” Jim Sandman 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.