The Long Road to Disaster Recovery

/ Blog Post

Photo of Carla J. Krystyniak
Photo of Carla J. Krystyniak, Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellow at Lone Star Legal Aid

Recovering from a natural disaster is emotionally, physically, and financially difficult. Most people never expect that one day their home will be destroyed, but this is the reality many people across our country face today.

Legal aid is not usually top of mind when people think of disaster recovery needs, however, lawyers dedicated to helping individuals navigate the complex web of legal issues that arise following a storm or other natural disaster are an essential part of recovery.

Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damages to Houston, Texas, displacing over one-third of the city’s population. Over a year later, many residents are still rebuilding, and still others have yet to begin—there are many steps to the recovery process, and residents’ needs vary widely. Many of the Equal Justice Works Disaster Recovery Legal Corps (DRLC) Fellows are currently working to provide free legal assistance to low-income individuals who would otherwise be unable to secure disaster-related legal service. Fellows help with a range of assistance, such as with insurance claims, title clearings, unlawful evictions, and unscrupulous contractors.

At the Legal Services Corporation’s Disaster Task Force field hearing last month, DRLC Lead Fellow Carla J. Krystyniak spoke about her work at Lone Star Legal Aid, and the poor living conditions she continues to see in clients’ homes.

"Some haven’t had any repairs done yet. It might be the first time they ever thought to contact legal aid, and it might be that they contact about a separate issue and then we find out that that’s only a part of it.”

Carla J. Krystyniak /
Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellow

Lawyers can play an indispensable role in helping clients apply for disaster assistance. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has several types of aid programs, but applying for them is not always easy. The process is marked by rigorous deadlines and stringent rules about who is eligible to receive FEMA assistance. Lawyers can help clients understand the fine print and create a roadmap to accurately account for the damages caused by the disaster and represent them in FEMA appeals.

Another way lawyers provide critical help in the disaster recovery process is to hold contractors accountable, protecting clients against dishonest service providers. Contractor fraud is an unfortunate, but pervasive, issue in the aftermath of disasters, wherein workers either take the long-awaited FEMA funds and disappear without making repairs or they simply perform shoddy work. Mold, for example, is common after flood emergencies, yet some contractors make repairs without conducting any mold remediation, triggering a domino effect of other problems down the road.

With the recent devastating wildfires in California, and the ongoing rebuilding in hurricane-battered communities, legal aid for those affected is as crucial as ever. Please join our efforts to mobilize more lawyers who can help communities in need, including those navigating the aftermath of disaster, by supporting our Fellowship program.

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has received philanthropic support from the American Red Cross, Bigglesworth Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Florida Bar Foundation, Fong Family Foundation, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow