May 22, 2011, was a day that divided Jamie Rodriguez’s life into two parts: before and after. On that day, one of the most destructive tornadoes in US history touched down in her hometown of Joplin, Missouri, destroying 25% of the town. A week after the tornado, Jamie returned home for one week to help with the recovery effort. She volunteered at Legal Aid of Western Missouri’s booth at a community-wide resources fair, lending her legal training to the recovery effort. In October she moved home full time and started working as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at Legal Aid of Western Missouri.
Jamie works alongside Zachary Tusinger, another Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, on a wide range of legal issues to help the recovery effort in Joplin. Last Monday, January 14, both Zach and Jamie redeployed to New York City to help in the recovery effort after Superstorm Sandy. The legal expertise surrounding disaster relief that they have both been cultivating over the past 14 months make them great assets to the recovery effort.
Zach is working with New York Legal Assistance Group's (NYLAG) recently formed Storm Response Unit in Lower Manhattan where he is going through a backlog of approximately 600 disaster relief cases and triaging them with an assessment of upcoming FEMA deadlines, priorities, needs and necessary courses of action. Zach has been leveraging his FEMA contacts from Joplin to get NYLAG attorneys in touch with their FEMA counterparts in NYC. He says he is "trying to bring a little bit of the smalltown community networking approach that worked so well in Joplin to the Big Apple."
Jamie is stationed at MFY Legal Services and has spent her first week traveling all over New York to bring assistance and guidance to people who were hit by the storm. She’s helping survivors access their FEMA benefits, and helping people who want to apply for Neighborhood Recovery Fund Grants. On her third day in New York, she presented a disaster law seminar for Cordozo Law students. Both Zach and Jamie have hit the ground running and we are excited to hear more about their experiences in New York!
One thing that Zach and Jamie learned in Joplin was the importance of community in helping people recover from catastrophe. Lawyers are a vital piece of the puzzle in helping a city recover from a disaster, but they would not be as effective if not for the help of healthcare providers, volunteers, charities and other community organizations.
Jamie and Zach have had some big victories in Joplin such as getting people insurance and FEMA benefits and getting people back in their homes. These victories are exciting and inspire hopefulness and optimism for the future of Joplin. The smaller victories are just as inspiring. They had one elderly client whose apartment was destroyed in the tornado. In all the chaos, she forgot to apply for hearing aids from FEMA and her insurance didn’t cover them, so she didn’t have hearing aids.
“From a legal standpoint we did all we could with FEMA to try to help get her money, but at the end of the day we had to just start making phone calls to charities and we wound up getting her hearing aids. It was just a little victory, but it made this woman’s life a lot better,” says Zach. “And that was something that nobody else was going to be able to do.”
The big picture of a disaster like the Joplin tornado and Superstorm Sandy is one of devastation and loss, but from a different angle it’s a picture of thousands of people coming together to help. Volunteers, healthcare professionals, community organizations, and lawyers like Jamie and Zach have all risen to the occasion to get people back on their feet.