By Linda Anderson Stanley, senior program manager at Equal Justice Works and director of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services Program
Lawyers play a critical role in helping communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. Disasters, whether natural, human-made, or pandemic, disproportionally affect people who have already been marginalized—those who struggle with physical and mental disabilities; people of color; and low-income individuals and families who don’t have the resources to travel, evacuate, repair their homes, or access an attorney.
This past year—with the combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a heightened hurricane season, intense winter storms, and much of the west coast being fiercely ablaze—has been especially devastating for low-income families. Not only has the crisis of COVID-19 created its own civil legal issues such as mass evictions, unemployment, and ballooning debt, it has also significantly hindered the ability of disaster survivors to justly recover after a natural disaster. We are seeing in real time the need for both preparedness and rapid response.
At Equal Justice Works, we believe that building a strong pipeline of legal talent committed to equal access to justice will advance a more equitable recovery period after disasters and create more resilient communities in the future.
As the frequency and severity of disasters continues to rise, lawyers play a critical role in improving preparedness by working with community members and leaders to avoid or mitigate disaster-related legal challenges.
In 2020, we launched the Disaster Resilience Program to help fulfill the need for critical legal assistance before, during, and after disasters. Through the program, we have mobilized an initial cohort of six lawyers (Fellows) to work at legal services organizations in Texas and Florida to assist individuals and families with their COVID-19 related legal issues. The Fellows are also helping these individuals and families recover from the abundance of natural disasters that they have experienced, while working to build stronger and more resilient communities for the future.
Our Fellows accomplish more when they work together. What makes our cohort Fellowships model unique is that program participants have the opportunity to work alongside each other and share resources with one another, so they can be more effective advocates in disaster law. The model also allows for resource-sharing among community partners and national organizations focused on disaster response and recovery such as The National Disaster Legal Aid Advocacy Center.
“The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program facilitates the ability of Fellows to concentrate on a specific marginalized population. But more importantly, it facilitates the cross-collaboration among Fellows to uphold the rule of law for all populations as we grow and learn from each other’s strengths or specialization,” said Stephanie Duke, Equal Justice Works Fellow.
The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program facilitates the ability of Fellows to concentrate on a specific marginalized population. But more importantly, it facilitates the cross-collaboration among Fellows to uphold the rule of law for all populations as we grow and learn from each other’s strengths or specialization.
Stephanie Duke /
Equal Justice Works Fellow
In the first half of the program alone, these six Fellows served 307 individuals (90% were below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines), secured more than $252,057 in economic benefits on behalf of their clients, conducted outreach and educational trainings in response to COVID-19 and disaster preparedness, and engaged in numerous public service and leadership development opportunities.
The legal needs of disaster survivors are complex and difficult to navigate alone. The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is committed to ensuring that all disaster survivors have an equitable recovery and are resilient for the future, not just those who can afford an attorney.
Since 2005, Equal Justice Works has mobilized more than 80 passionate public service lawyers to deliver legal services to disaster-affected communities.
Our Fellows have responded to Hurricanes Hanna, Harvey, Ike, Irma, Katrina, Laura, Maria, Sally, Sandy, and Rita; Tropical Storm Imelda; flooding in the Gulf Coast; tornadoes in Missouri and Oklahoma; the immigration crisis; the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and most recently COVID-19.
Read more stories about the work of our Fellows and how they are supporting communities with disaster-responsive lawyering:
- Equal Justice Works Fellows to Host Disaster Legal Aid Trainings
- Responding to the Increased Demand for Disaster Legal Aid
- Challenges on the Disability Community Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
- Renters’ rights and aid for repairs from burst pipes
- Be Prepared! – Disaster Planning Tips for Lawyers & Law Firms
- They have chronic illnesses. Then, the power went out in Texas. ‘It’s been emotionally exhausting.’
We continue to explore ways to expand the program into new areas across the country, and are seeking partners to help us do so. If you’d like to learn more about partnering with the Disaster Resilience Program, please reach out to [email protected].
The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, and individual contributions.