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Lessons Learned: Disaster Relief Lawyers Relocate to Assist with Sandy Relief

NYC AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Seeks Help from Fellow AmeriCorps Lawyers across the Country


(November 28, 2012) Washington, D.C. – When Hurricane Sandy struck, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow and New York native Marcy Wehling knew exactly where to turn for help.  With significant experience in disaster relief, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows Zach Tusinger and Jamie Rodriguez of Joplin, Missouri were perfectly positioned to lend their talents in helping New York begin its recovery process. Starting next week and into January, all three Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows will temporarily redeploy to New York City to assist residents with legal issues arising in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

“Equal Justice Works has a history of being the ‘first responders’ of the legal community when disasters strike,” said David Stern, Executive Director of Equal Justice Works. “When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, we very quickly were able to place 19 of our Fellows on the ground to assist residents with FEMA claims, employment benefits, and more.  We assisted families across the country through the foreclosure crisis; came to the aid of those impacted by the BP oil spill; and for the past two years have had two Fellows in Joplin, Missouri helping residents recover from the impact of devastating tornado.  We hope to provide similar relief to New Yorkers impacted by Sandy and are pleased to be able to redeploy three of our Fellows to help residents on their path to recovery.”

Tusinger and Rodriguez are well acquainted with the problems that result from events such as Hurricane Sandy. Both in the second year of their fellowship providing disaster relief in the wake of the Joplin tornado, Tusinger and Rodriguez have extensive experience with the legal issues that must be handled to assist victims of natural disaster. Combine this with Wehling’s experience in public benefits assistance, and the team will aim to make a significant dent in the legal problems caused by Hurricane Sandy. “In disaster, lawyers are involved in caseloads that range from landlord-tenant disputes and FEMA claims, to domestic violence, contractor disputes and other outstanding legal issues; without lawyers to help communities overcome these roadblocks, situations often remain unresolved or even deteriorate further,” says Rodriguez. “Lawyers are a vital piece of the puzzle in helping a whole city recover from a disaster.”

In the short time that the recovery efforts in New York have been in effect, victims have already faced denial of FEMA applications for temporary residence, and the AmeriCorps Legal Fellows will help these victims navigate the complicated legal process for submitting appeals for shelter. Predatory contract services, in which contractors from out of town will contract with local residents to fix their residences, only to run with the money or not complete the contracted job, were an unfortunate occurrence which were frequently observed in the aftermath of Joplin and are similarly a major concern in the aftermath of Sandy; Tusinger and Rodriguez will apply their experience to help locals avoid shady contracts that bind them legally, or once these contracts have been made, to receiving the repairs services for which they have already paid. As Tusinger and Rodriguez have significant experience in disaster relief education services, they will also be developing guidance documents for legal volunteers who do not have experiences in disaster relief to provide advice on relations with FEMA and in order to facilitate the utility of their time and efforts.

Due to the unpredictable nature of disaster relief sites, the daily activities of the Fellows will fluctuate depending on the greatest need.  One of the biggest issues that the legal team will tackle will be helping victims overcome legal barriers to accessing disabilities benefits and health care to assist with injuries incurred during the storm; many more will need assistance accessing unemployment benefits and disaster food stamps as their jobs no longer exist and they cannot work.  Zach Tusinger will be working with the New York Legal Assistance Group; Jamie Rodriguez will be helping at MFY Legal Services, Inc.; and Marcy Wehling will be providing assistance at Legal Services NYC in the Staten Island office.

The damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy has caused problems that will take years to fully resolve.  Equal Justice Works will apply for additional funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service, to place additional AmeriCorps Legal Fellows to continue to help New York rebuild.

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Equal Justice Works is the national leader in creating public interest opportunities for law students and lawyers.  Collaborating with the nation’s leading law schools, law firms, corporate legal departments and nonprofit organizations, Equal Justice Works offers a continuum of opportunities that provide the training and skills that enable attorneys to provide effective representation to underserved communities and causes.  Equal Justice Works is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.  For additional information about Equal Justice Works, please visit