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Working Together Across the Spectrum of Disaster Legal Needs

/ Blog Post

By Al Roberts, public programs specialist at Equal Justice Works

Photo of Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellows with Equal Justice Works Executive Director David Stern (far left)

In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, Equal Justice Works established the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps (DRLC). Launched in May 2018, this award-winning Fellowship program mobilized 23 attorneys to provide free civil legal services to low-income and marginalized communities affected by these disasters in Texas and Florida. As new challenges came to light, such as Tropical Storm Imelda and the COVID-19 pandemic, Fellows in the DRLC were able to adapt to the needs within their communities and realize profound outcomes for their clients.

The unique nature of the DRLC’s regional cohort Fellowship model allowed the program to achieve its greatest potential, with Fellows leveraging their combined knowledge and expertise to better serve the disparate needs of disaster survivors. The diverse array of specializations among Fellows enhanced their efficacy in addressing the critical legal needs of a similarly diverse client population. Some Fellows’ projects had them addressing labor rights, while others were focused on appealing FEMA benefit denials or combatting improper evictions. Several Fellows’ scope of work targeted specific demographics like individuals with disabilities or undocumented immigrant families. This robust network allowed for client referrals between the Fellows in the program and with community partners at large, connecting disaster-impacted clients to holistic services.

At the end of the program in October 2020, the work of the Fellows rendered some truly impressive feats. Of the cases closed during the program, 84% resulted in a positive outcome for the client, contributing to a staggering $3.25 million in combined economic benefits achieved for clients. These benefits included housing stability, FEMA assistance, resolving title disputes, preserving wages, and more. The magnitude of economic benefits realized illustrates the return on investment enabled by the cohort Fellowship model.

Additionally, community outreach and education efforts by the Fellows led to 24,264 individuals receiving legal information and 6,007 individuals receiving legal assistance on a breadth of issues—housing, family, consumer finance, immigration, health, estate planning, and many more facets of life that can be disrupted following a disaster.

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps is exemplary of what a cohort Fellowship model can accomplish. Learn more about the work of the DRLC Fellows and Equal Justice Works continued commitment to disaster recovery and preparedness in its latest initiative, the Disaster Resilience Program.

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps program was funded with support from the American Red Cross, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Florida Bar Foundation, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Sharon and Ivan Fong Family Foundation, and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

Learn more about the work of our DRLC Fellows here

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow