Helping Communities Prepare for and Respond to Disasters

/ Blog Post

By Linda Anderson Stanley, senior project manager at Equal Justice Works and director of the ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services program

Over the past decade, disasters have become increasingly frequent and devastating—to the point where numerous deadly disasters in a year is now considered “the new normal.”  Last year was no exception. 2019 was the seventh year in the past decade with 10 or more disasters surpassing $1 billion in damages. As the rate and intensity of disasters continue to rise, so too do the legal needs of disaster survivors.

Although disasters do not tend to discriminate in terms of where or how they strike, recovery efforts are discriminatory. Those residing in low-income communities suffer disproportionately from the effects of disasters and are also least likely to have access to an attorney. Often, people think of food, water, and shelter as the primary needs after a disaster, but that is far from the only reality. Low-income individuals have to contend with other challenges like obtaining employment and accessing benefits. Disasters only compound these issues and often create new poverty. Lawyers play a critical role in assisting individuals with preparing for and recovering from disasters.

What happens when disaster strikes during a pandemic? The unprecedented crisis of COVID-19 has heightened the uncertainty and disparity for marginalized communities while creating unique and compounding legal issues.

Equal Justice Works recognizes the continued need for qualified attorneys committed to working in low-income communities to prepare for and respond to the unique challenges arising from all types of disasters. In response to this need, Equal Justice Works created the Disaster Resilience Program. The Disaster Resilience Program mobilizes Fellows to provide free civil legal aid in disaster-prone areas to ensure vital legal services are accessible to rebuild lives, stabilize communities, and create resilience.

Building Upon Internal Expertise

In 2018, Equal Justice Works mobilized 23 Fellows to deliver critical legal assistance to disaster-affected communities in Florida and Texas through its Disaster Recovery Legal Corps (DRLC). Not only has the DRLC increased access to justice in communities, it has also increased the capacity of legal services organizations to serve disaster survivors. In just two years, the DRLC more than doubled its program goals by providing legal information to over 24,000 individuals, legal assistance to more than 6,000 individuals, and over $3 million in economic benefits.

Equal Justice Works has a long-standing reputation in the disaster recovery field. The Disaster Resilience Program will continue to build upon the successes and expertise gleaned from our award winning DRLC program, while broadening our services based on lessons learned from prior disaster work. These prior programs were responsive to disasters, but we have since learned the importance of addressing the full continuum of needs. The Disaster Resilience Program promotes collaboration and partnership development, ensures flexibility to respond to various disasters as they occur, and incorporates preparation to effectively reduce social vulnerabilities and build more disaster-resilient communities.

Collaboration within the Disaster Legal Community

The gap in disaster-response is more significant when there is a lack of collaboration of resources and partnerships. Fellows in the Disaster Resilience Program will have the opportunity to build relationships with other legal partners and pro bono attorneys; the public; potential clients; and non-legal partners such as local emergency management agencies, faith-based partners, and social service organizations that disaster survivors often turn to first.

Fellows will also share their expertise and experiences to support legal services organizations and their clients at a national level. They will serve as short-term, on-the-ground experts as needed, when crises arise in other parts of the country.

Overall Goals for the Disaster Resilience Program

According to experts, natural hazards only become disasters in the first place because of  society’s lack of preparation. Preparedness leads to resiliency which leads to a quicker and more just recovery. Our Fellows will assist their host organizations in much-needed disaster recovery efforts while also helping to build more prepared—and therefore more resilient—communities.

The flexibility of our new model will also give Fellows the ability to respond to and recover from smaller disasters that have not risen to the level of a Federal Declaration. Everyone hears about the big events—like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—but not everyone hears about the apartment building burning down in the middle of winter in Minnesota. These individuals need a lawyer too.

Unfortunately, disasters will continue to occur, and survivors will always need an attorney to assist them in stabilizing their lives to return to some sense of normalcy. Our model of equipping Fellows to focus not only on disaster response and recovery but also mitigation and preparedness will allow us to continue building a strong pipeline of attorneys throughout legal services organizations ready to help communities prepare and recover from all types of disasters.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow