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Building Stronger & More Resilient Communities: The Story of the Disaster Resilience Program

/ Blog Post

By Touri Goode, program coordinator at Equal Justice Works

Photo of the DRP Cohort 1 Fellows. Top row, L-R: Latasha Cooper, Stephanie Duke, and Hannah Dyal. Bottom row, L-R: Robert Flores, Meghan Smolensky, and Maria Vazquez.

The legal needs that emerge following a disaster are complex and difficult to navigate alone. Public interest lawyers play a crucial role in helping families overcome barriers to recovery in the aftermath of a disaster. Civil legal aid is a building block that helps create community sustainability, resilience, and preparedness for future disasters.

In June of 2020, Equal Justice Works launched the Disaster Resilience Program to help fulfill the need for equitable legal services before, during, and after a disaster occurs. Through the program, public interest lawyers work on-the-ground providing free civil legal aid to low-income communities in areas prone to disasters such as hurricanes, floods, winter storms, wildfires, and pandemics.

Photo of the DRP Cohort 1 Student Fellows. Top row, L-R: Kayla Barbour, Kyla Howard, and Andra Lehotay de León. Bottom row, L-R: Eric Rhoton, Shania Waugh, and Maya Wiemokly.

The first cohort of the Disaster Resilience Program mobilized six Fellows (public interest lawyers) who served from June 2020 to October 2021 in Texas and Florida. In the summer of 2021, they were joined by six student Fellows (law students) who worked alongside them to provide support and build their legal skills outside of the classroom.

“Being part of the Disaster Resilience Program allowed me to become a trusted stakeholder and partner within both the disaster networks and disability organizations,” said 2020 Fellow Stephanie Duke. “Having staff designated to disaster work allowed for consistency and representation of the needs of the disability community.”

Being part of the Disaster Resilience Program allowed me to become a trusted stakeholder and partner within both the disaster networks and disability organizations.

Stephanie Duke /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Disaster Resilience Program

Due to the nature of the Fellowship model, program participants had the opportunity to collaborate with each other, share resources and learn from each other so that they could be more effective advocates for their clients. As a result, the Fellows in the Disaster Resilience Program were able to make a significant impact in the communities where they served.

Fellows provided legal services to 545 individuals and 668 pro bono hours to disaster survivors, contributing to a staggering $670,235 in combined economic benefits gained for clients. Here are some top highlights from cohort one:

  • At Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, 2020 Fellow Hannah Dyal helped to file a lawsuit against FEMA for violating the Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit claims that FEMA had denied funds to victims of Winter Storm Uri and had not disclosed the rules for determining disaster aid.
  • Meghan Smolenksy, a 2020 Fellow at Lone Star Legal Aid assisted a client who lost his job after receiving a heart transplant. He could no longer work in his immunocompromised condition and did not qualify for unemployment payments. Meghan filed a CDC Declaration moratorium so that his landlord could not evict him. She was able to get her client rental assistance and the eviction case against him was eventually dismissed.
  • At YMCA International Services, 2020 Fellow Roberto Flores represented a widow of a U.S. Army veteran who was forced to remain in Canada because she wasn’t a legal permanent resident of the United States. Her home was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey along with her immigration documents. Roberto helped her to apply for a 601 Waiver and offered her pro bono representation and interview preparation. Her waiver for permanent residency was approved in May 2021.

“Being in the Disaster Resilience Program allowed me to stay focused specifically on disaster recovery work,” said Hannah on the benefits of the program. “If I had not been in the program, the cases I was working on would likely have been “non-priority” and I may not have been able to focus on those cases and clients.”

Being in the Disaster Resilience Program allowed me to stay focused specifically on disaster recovery work.

Hannah Deal /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Disaster Resilience Program

In addition to direct legal services, Fellows led community outreach and education efforts that included collaborating with 55 community organizations and conducting 4,000 disaster preparedness presentations and trainings. Program participants also authored a Disaster Attorney Guidebook that’s set to be released later this month. The Guidebook, a first of its kind, provides an overview of disaster assistance available under state and federal laws and outlines the steps that attorneys should take to ensure assistance reaches low-income disaster survivors.

Equal Justice Works is continuing its commitment to disaster recovery and preparedness, with a second cohort of Fellows who are being mobilized to serve communities in California, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Fellows in California will support communities affected by wildfires and provide education in wildfire prevention; in Louisiana, Fellows will serve communities impacted by housing instability, hurricanes, floods, and COVID-19; and Fellows in New Mexico will provide holistic legal services to immigrant families to help reduce the risk of harm from disasters.

To learn more about the Disaster Resilience Program, visit here.

Cohort 1 of the Disaster Resilience Program was funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, and the Bigglesworth Family Foundation.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow