Federal Indian Tribes and Disaster Response and Preparedness

By Ariele Dashow, 3L law student at Stetson University College of law, and disaster law extern for Equal Justice Works’ Disaster Resilience Program.

Throughout adolescence, parents spend a great deal of time teaching their children who to call in case of an emergency. By age six, most children know how to call the police, the fire department, or even animal control. With age, our need for information may expand, depending on location: hurricane evacuation routes to take, where the closest protective shelter is located, and how to respond during any kind of disaster. This information may be common sense to the average individual living in high-risk areas, but for members of federally recognized tribes living on reservations, accessing aid for disasters isn’t so simple.

Under the United States Constitution, federally recognized tribes are considered “domestic dependent nations,” holding a type of “tribal sovereignty” within their own courts systems and governing bodies. These internal governments and councils dictate tribes’ relationships with local, state, and federal governments and their corresponding agencies and disaster response services. The most important agency recognized by the tribes is the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which has acted as the mediator, negotiator, and representative for the tribes within the government for the past 185 years.

This long-standing relationship with the government and the ability of tribes to create their own government has left disaster response surprisingly more complicated for tribes than for others. The title of “domestic dependent nation” has wedged tribes in a position with more sovereignty over their land and people than states have, but less than the federal government. Since tribes possess their own government, disaster response and preparedness starts from within the tribe, with aide coming from tribal police and resources. These resources are very limited in funding and manpower, which occasionally forces tribes to leave disasters unattended. Despite representation by the BIA, the tribes do not have as concrete of a relationship with other federal response agencies as States do.

This long-standing relationship with the government and the ability of tribes to create their own government has left disaster response surprisingly more complicated for tribes than for others.

Ariele Dashow /
Extern for Equal Justice Works' Disaster Resilience Program

When internal responses fail, the tribes do have access to and are encouraged to use response measures and preparedness resources put in place by federal agencies. Many of these resources, such as pre-disaster mitigation plans, emergency operation plans, and other training modules are readily available for the tribes to engage in. The Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently reported on trainings they provide to tribes and their members on disaster preparedness. A recent seminar provided basic medical training for mass casualty incidents. Ronald Spang, the Disaster and Emergency Service Coordinator for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, attended this seminar and spoke about how the rurality of his tribe and many others impacts their ability to respond to emergencies:

“The majority of Native American communities are small and located in rural areas. We do not have access to this type of training, and I know all of the tribes here will benefit. I rarely see emergency simulations that reinforce the importance of practicing our plans or implementing new plans if they are needed.”

I rarely see emergency simulations that reinforce the importance of practicing our plans or implementing new plans if they are needed.

Ronald Spang /
Disaster and Emergency Service Coordinator for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation

It is also important for Native American communities to have access to legal services in the aftermath of a disaster. All indigenous peoples and federally recognized tribes have access to the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC); with offices in Montana and Washington, D.C., this non-profit organization centralizes all legal and non-legal resources and news for American Indians and indigenous groups. Through this organization, everyone is encouraged to learn and support their indigenous friends and neighbors, as well as take action in the legal battles and disasters tribes face. Additionally, the National Indian Law Library (NILL) offers direct links to sources, guides, and lawyer directories for tribes to use in times of disaster. NILL is a great academic resource for those looking to learn more about the history and current practice of Native American Law. For those interested in Native Indian Law or in need of legal aid, their website can be found here. The ILRC and NILL are regularly updated with new projects, resources, law news, and ways to show support to different tribes being affected by disaster. Attorneys who are interested in offering legal aid to native tribes should also brush up on the laws and contacts of local tribes. Visiting a tribe’s tribe website is another great way to get involved—these websites will guide individuals towards tribal leaders, employment opportunities, important historical facts, and laws.

As recognized citizens of the United States, tribes can seek aide from federal agencies and organizations, such as FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the American Red Cross, as well as other state and local response teams. The CDP offers more than 40 free courses in disaster response and preparedness to tribal nation members, at no extended cost to their members and globally-accessible preparedness training via their YouTube Channel. FEMA seeks to bridge the gaps between tribal nations and federal agency aide to make response and preparedness more accessible for tribes and their members. Additionally, online trainings are meant to encourage communication and relationships between tribes and local resources that would be able to provide aide during disasters.

When in the face of a disaster, it is important to know who you can turn to in your time of need. The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is committed to ensuring that all disaster survivors have equal access to recovery, legal services, and information to help communities prepare for and withstand future disasters.

For more information about the Disaster Resilience Program, please visit here.

My Impact is a conversation series from Equal Justice Works, using interviews with alumni to shine a light on what’s possible with an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Marketing and Communications Assistant Miranda Sullivan spoke with Robert Flores, a 2018 Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps and a 2020 Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program. As a Fellow, Robert was hosted by YMCA International Services.

For Robert Flores, working in public interest law is a commitment to the entire public interest community. His focus on immigrant communities affected by disasters is a testament to his philosophy. “There’s one fundamental truth to disasters,” said Robert. “[They] can make an already bad situation worse. So, for people who are already disadvantaged or are already struggling in one way, being affected by a disaster just exponentially makes things unbearable.”

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas in 2017, Robert was practicing immigration law at YMCA International Services. The office closed for a week due to flooding and when he returned, he noticed how members of the community were impacted by the hurricane. “It led to them not being able to afford the fee for the immigration office… so I began to do more and more fee waivers for our clients due to applying for temporary needs-based benefits or due to effects on their income or other financial hardships.”

Robert had the unique experience of serving in two Equal Justice Works Fellowship programs. From 2018 to 2020, he participated in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, a program that placed lawyers throughout Texas and Florida to deliver critical legal services to underserved communities affected by recent hurricanes and tropical storms. Following this Fellowship, Robert joined the Disaster Resilience Program from 2020 to 2021, where he helped to fulfill the need for equitable legal services before, during, and after a disaster occurs.

Throughout these two Fellowships, Robert remained at his host organization, YMCA International Services, continuing to expand disaster resiliency within the immigrant and refugee communities and build stronger client relationships.  “It has made me more cognizant of people’s situation outside of the service that I am providing them,” he noted. “I had the opportunity to go to the immigration courts and actually speak to people in removal proceedings on a rotating basis… and [this allowed me to be] able to see trends, identify gaps, and identify things that were working and things that were not working… My immigration knowledge experience increased exponentially.”

Serving in these programs also allowed Robert to gain experience in other areas of law. “I was able to see civil law in a way that I hadn’t been able to see before [and] I was able to see how disaster effectiveness affects other legal processes,” he said. “I was able to understand the importance of title clearance, of FEMA appeals, and of insurance. I was able to see how people with disabilities are affected or systemically cut off from services and I would not have had that exposure without the Fellowship.”

I was able to see civil law in a way that I hadn't been able to see before [and] I was able to see how disaster effectiveness affects other legal processes.

Robert Flores /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

In his conversation with Miranda, Robert also shared the following advice for those looking to go into public interest law: “Start off with looking at what causes an emotional reaction from you right now. Whether that is good or bad, look at something that is exciting to you… and see if there is any way that you can get involved.”

“Public interest is an incredibly wide net. It can be anything from immigration to education rights, rights for people with disabilities, accessibility, reproductive rights. It’s a field that almost has no limits,” he added.

To learn more about Robert’s work helping immigrants and refugees prepare and recover from disasters, watch the full interview here.

Interested in kickstarting your own public interest law career? Visit here to apply for a 2023 Design-Your-Own Fellowship before the September 13, 2022 deadline!

Photo of Emily Bruell
Photo of Emily Bruell, 2022 Student Fellow at NMILC

By 2022 Disaster Resilience Program Student Fellow Emily Bruell, who works alongside 2022 Fellows Sophia Genovese, Taylor Noya, and Anna Trillo at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) to provide legal aid to non-detained asylum seekers and noncitizens in immigration detention facilities experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. In honor of National Preparedness Month, this blog was written to raise awareness about the importance of being prepared for disasters in order to respond to them adequately and efficiently.

COVID-19 has intensified the chronic issues within immigration detention facilities, which are wrought with medical neglect, government misconduct, and due process violations. The pandemic has made these facilities even more dangerous, particularly for those with medical vulnerabilities.

I work alongside my colleagues at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) to respond to issues exacerbated by COVID-19 in two of New Mexico’s private immigration detention facilities: the Cibola County Correctional Center and the Torrance County Detention Facility.

Over the past several months, we have spoken with ill and disabled migrants and asylum seekers whose basic needs go woefully unmet while in immigration custody. We also observed that when there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a detention facility, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the facilities do not respond adequately nor appropriately, jeopardizing the health and safety of incarcerated immigrants, particularly those with medical vulnerabilities.

In response to this mismanagement, we filed a Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of Edgar, a Nicaraguan asylum seeker, against the ICE El Paso Field Office and the Cibola County Correctional Center. Edgar suffered physical abuse at the hands of government officials, which resulted in his ankle being broken, and he experienced first-hand how ICE’s COVID-19 policies were negligent to the detainees in Cibola. In addition to detailing the physical abuse Edgar suffered at the hands of government officials, causing a broken ankle, we also exposed the inadequate response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The COVID-19 outbreak at Cibola began when another incarcerated immigrant in Edgar’s unit reported symptoms on Friday, August 5. Edgar reported symptoms the next day. Neither Edgar nor the other man received a COVID-19 test until the following Monday, August 8. At that time, Edgar’s entire unit was tested, then sent back to their usual dorms before learning the results of their test. The next morning, Edgar was given another COVID-19 test and informed that he tested positive.

He was then moved to quarantine—three days after initially reporting symptoms, which allowed the disease to spread in Cibola. Edgar was originally quarantined with four other men, and the number ultimately increased to seven. The total number of those who tested positive for COVID-19 is still unknown because ICE refuses to report these positive tests.

While in quarantine, Edgar experienced trouble breathing, shortness of breath, severe lung pain, and nausea in addition to intense body aches, headache, sore throat, and congestion. He was not provided any medication for over 24 hours, at which point he was given a pill for his sore throat and another for his congestion. Every evening, the men were placed in separate cells with a radio to contact the officers; however, the officers did not respond to any communication from the radio.

One of the men in quarantine became extremely ill and was struggling to breathe. Edgar and the other quarantined men pleaded for medical help over the radio but received no response. Though the man’s condition improved somewhat the next morning, the lack of response left no doubt in Edgar’s mind that he could not expect help from the officers if he needed urgent medical care.

The lack of response left no doubt in Edgar’s mind that he could not expect help from the officers if he needed urgent medical care.

In response, we escalated our concerns to ICE, and those complaints went ignored until the filing of the CRCL complaint the following week. To this day, ICE has not reported the positive COVID-19 cases at Cibola County.

Despite having ties to the United States and a sister who is deeply committed to supporting him upon release from detention, Edgar remains detained at Cibola, where he continues to experience horrific and unsafe living conditions. In light of his prolonged detention, Edgar contemplated giving up and accepting deportation; however, he remains committed to fighting his complaint and ensuring no one else suffers the way he and so many others have in Cibola County.

I work alongside my colleagues at NMILC to help people like Edgar every day. We hold on-site bimonthly legal presentations for migrants and asylum seekers that provide an overview of asylum law, their rights, how to request to be released from detention, and more. Since April of 2022 we have provided valuable legal presentations and know-your-rights information to nearly 300 incarcerated migrants and asylum seekers.

I work alongside my colleagues at NMILC to help people like Edgar every day.

We have also conducted consultations for these 300 individuals, providing them with individualized case information. After conducting consultations, NMILC—in partnership with Innovation Law Lab, Justice for Our Neighbors—El Paso, and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center—coordinates legal services for individuals seeking representation in their requests for release from detention and other legal support. So far, we have helped release nearly 20 people from immigration detention. In addition, we have engaged in systemic advocacy to combat the cruelties of immigration enforcement, removal, and detention.

At NMLIC, we are constantly fighting for transparency in ICE operations, fighting for the rights of incarcerated migrants and asylum seekers impacted by the COVID-19 disaster, and demanding the release of all immigrants from deadly detention facilities in New Mexico. COVID-19 has exacerbated the cruelties of immigration detention, and no amount of oversight or medical response can prevent another tragedy from occurring. In the end, I believe the only way to overcome, and be resilient to, the COVID-19 crisis in New Mexico’s immigration detention facilities is to abolish detention itself.

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

Equal Justice Works is proud to introduce the 2022 class of Disaster Resilience Program Student Fellows. These eight law students will spend their summer working alongside Disaster Resilience Program Fellows in California, Louisiana, and New Mexico as they help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.

“Disasters can have a devastating impact on individuals and communities, and the legal needs that emerge following a disaster are complex and difficult to navigate alone,” said Linda Anderson Stanley, senior program manager at Equal Justice Works and director of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services Program. “We are proud to support these Student Fellows in their work to expand critical legal resources for families affected by disasters and their efforts to build more resilient communities.”

Through the Disaster Resilience Program, Student Fellows will gain exposure to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery legal work. They will help to provide civil legal services, engage in community education and advocacy efforts, and build capacity at their host organization.

Meet our Disaster Resilience Program Student Fellows and learn more about how they will be supporting a wide range of disaster-related legal issues, including housing, employment, immigration, accessibility, and health care needs.

Photo of Megan Brua
Photo of Megan Brua

Megan Brua (she/her/hers), University of Wisconsin Law School

At Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, Megan will work alongside 2021 Fellow Chris Kerrigan to help achieve justice for low-income individuals facing eviction or housing instability. This includes providing legal assistance, advocacy, community education, and resources to those who have experienced housing issues due to disasters or landlord neglect.

 

Photo of Emily Bruell
Photo of Emily Bruell

Emily Bruell, Stanford Law School

At New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, Emily will work with 2022 Fellows Taylor Noya, Sophia Genovese, and Anna Trillo on the Asylum and Detention team to provide legal aid to noncitizens in immigration detention and non-detained asylum seekers. Emily will also assist Fellows with asylum cases and conduct outreach at New Mexico’s detention centers.

 

Photo of Nora Hendricks
Photo of Nora Hendricks

Nora Hendricks (she/her/hers), Seattle University School of Law

Hosted by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, Nora will work with 2022 Fellow Patrick Doell to provide on-site direct legal services at the Baton Rouge City Court via an eviction help desk. A city court eviction help desk will act as insulation for individuals against future increases in evictions due to disasters or other causes. They will also aid defendants who need legal representation in eviction cases. Together, Nora and Patrick will aid those who are experiencing issues with housing security due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Photo of Abigail Meibaum
Photo of Abigail Meibaum

Abigail Meibaum (she/her/hers), Washington University in Saint Louis School of Law

Abigail will focus on disaster-related advocacy and litigation with 2022 Fellow Skyler Williams at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. There, Abigail will help provide access to sustainable housing and prevent evictions in Louisiana, which is currently facing an eviction crisis due to COVID-19. The region’s vulnerability to hurricanes requires a focus on overarching housing issues and providing know your rights training for community members, which Abigail will help provide.

 

Photo of Alondra Granados
Photo of Alondra Granados-Diaz

Alondra Granados-Diaz, University of New Mexico School of Law

Hosted by New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, Alondra will work alongside 2022 Fellow Sophia Genovese on the Asylum and Detention team to provide legal assistance to noncitizens in immigration detention and non-detained asylum seekers. Together, they hope to aid those affected by COVID-19’s effects on the immigration system, such as medical issues raised by the pandemic in immigration detention centers.

 

Photo of Desiree Robedeaux
Photo of Desiree Robedeaux

Desiree Robedeaux (she/her/hers), University of California, Hastings College of Law

At Disability Rights California, Desiree will work alongside 2021 Fellow Jordan Davis to address the legal needs of Californians with disabilities affected by wildfire disasters. Together, they will work to address Public Safety Power Shutoff events, housing displacement and accessibility issues, emergency transportation, and the negative health impacts of poor air quality, which all disproportionately affect people with access and functional needs.

 

Photo of Jonathan Thomas
Photo of Jonathan Thomas

Jonathan Thomas (he/him/his), Washington and Lee University School of Law

Hosted by Disability Rights Louisiana, Jonathan will work with 2021 Fellow Kate Thorstad to serve Louisianans with disabilities who were impacted by disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida. Together, they will work to mitigate barriers to critical programs, services, and housing.

 

Photo of Ernesto Villasenor
Photo of Ernesto Villaseñor

Ernesto Villaseñor, University of Baltimore School of Law

Ernesto will work with 2021 Fellow Jacob Zarefsky at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles to provide legal aid and assistance to wildfire survivors throughout California. Together, they will work to conduct client outreach to disaster survivors, represent wildfire survivors, and engage with their peers in learning exercises.

Visit here for more information about Disaster Resilience Program.

The Disaster Resilience Program is currently funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions. 

We are proud to support these Student Fellows in their work to expand critical legal resources for families affected by disasters and their efforts to build more resilient communities.

Linda Anderson Stanley /
Equal Justice Works Senior Program Manager

In March 2022, Equal Justice Works teamed up with the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD), American Red Cross, Legal Services Corporation (LSC), Pro Bono Net and DisasterLegalAid.org, to commemorate Disaster Resilience Awareness Month.

With the frequency and intensity of disasters increasing over the last few years, so too has the demand for lawyers who can help ensure an equitable recovery in disaster-affected communities. That’s why, we created Disaster Resilience Awareness Month—observed every March—as a collaborative effort to highlight the important role of lawyers in helping communities prepare for, recover from, and build resilience to disasters, as well as provide helpful resources for disaster survivors and lawyers.

This year during Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, Fellows in our Disaster Resilience Program shared their expertise, information on the legal services available to disaster survivors, and best practices for advocating on behalf of people who need help recovering from the legal effects of disasters. Fellows authored posts on:

How to Create a Disaster Preparedness Plan 

2020 Fellows Stephanie Duke at Disability Rights Texas and Maria F. Vazquez at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston shared tips on how to create a disaster preparedness plan, with special focus on resources available for immigrant and disability communities. Read their post here.

Legal Help After Wildfires

2021 Fellow Jordan Davis at Disability Rights California looked at how Californians with disabilities are often overlooked in the aftermath of disaster. Read the post here.

Extreme Heat

2021 Fellow Jacob Zarefsky wrote about extreme heat events being overlooked as a disaster and what California lawmakers are doing to address the devastating impact of extreme heat. Read about it here.

Housing

2021 Fellow Christopher Kerrigan shared his experience representing tenants in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and provided some practical tips for assisting tenants with their housing needs following a disaster. Read about it here.

FEMA

2020 Fellow Hannah Dyal of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid shared tips for practitioners handling FEMA appeals in the aftermath of a disaster. Read about it here.

In addition to these posts, Equal Justice Works staff member Touri Goode wrote about the impact of the first cohort of the Disaster Resilience Program, which included six Fellows who served from June 2020 to October 2021 in Texas and Florida. Read more here.

This year, we also partnered with ABA YLD to create a National Disaster Attorney Guidebook, an expansive resource on disaster lawyering. This guidebook is the first of its kind and contains an overview of the available disaster assistance under various state and federal laws, as well as information on how to ensure that legal assistance reaches low-income disaster survivors. Equal Justice Works hosted a webinar to introduce the resource and walk participants through the contents and how to use it.

Thanks to the generous support of all our partners, host organizations, and supporters who joined us in making Disaster Resilience Awareness Month 2022 a success. We look forward to finding new opportunities to raise awareness about the complex legal needs of disaster survivors and the important role that lawyers play in supporting communities with the resources they need to recover from disasters and be resilient for the future.

For more information about the Disaster Resilience Program, visit here. To view the National Disaster Attorney Guidebook, please visit here and here for the accessible version.

The Disaster Resilience Program is funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions. 

Photo of Jacob Zarefsky

By Jacob Zarefsky, a 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program. Jacob is hosted by Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

While it is not a novel phenomenon, climate change has exacerbated the effects of extreme heat on people living in high-temperature climates. Heat-related illness and death represent a serious consequence of climate change in the 21st century, and this is especially prevalent in California. The Los Angeles Times recently published an article detailing the impact of heat-related deaths in California and found that extreme heat caused approximately 3,900 deaths in California over the past decade—that is six times more than the state’s official count. Even so, extreme heat receives substantially less awareness than other disasters, despite killing more Americans each year than wildfires, hurricanes, and floods.

Extreme heat poses an existential public health risk in California that manifests in various ways. When combined with drought conditions, extreme heat has led to many of the devastating wildfires throughout the state. These wildfires have prompted federal aid and assistance, state of emergencies, and state-wide public policy initiatives to mitigate its effects. However, as important as these efforts are, the exact location and timing of wildfires is unpredictable.

In contrast, some areas of the country experience predictable extreme heat patterns. Some areas of California can expect annual temperatures exceeding 115 degrees for several months. In 2020, heat waves impacted much of the Southwest for over three weeks and produced record-breaking temperatures throughout some regions. Heat waves lead to hospitalizations and deaths for individuals without sufficient cooling infrastructure in place, such as air conditioning and access to shade. Exact figures quantifying heat-related illnesses and deaths are inherently difficult to pinpoint, and this often results in under-reported numbers.

Ultimately, the impact of extreme heat falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable populations: communities with low-income households and people of color. Many low-income tenants do not have air-conditioning units and cannot afford to purchase them. While California landlords are required to provide access to heating, there are no state housing ordinances mandating access to cooling. Extreme heat not only raises habitability issues but also demonstrates the lack of sufficient standards in employment protections.

Ultimately, the impact of extreme heat falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable populations: communities with low-income households and people of color.

The California Division of Occupational Health and Safety (CalOSHA) is currently drafting regulations to establish minimum cooling standards for indoor environments, supplementing their outdoor employment standards. These protections will likely include access to shade, cool-down break periods, and minimum requirements to supply water. Complaints about violations of these employment standards and other heat-related safety infractions can be submitted to CalOSHA.

California lawmakers have begun to address the devastating impact of extreme heat through legislation and public policy. The city of Los Angeles recently passed a motion to announce a Chief Heat Officer to institute programs, mitigate extreme heat effects, and generate a better system to accumulate data on the issue. Further, the AB 2076 bill would establish an Extreme Heat and Community Resilience Program to coordinate state and local efforts to address extreme heat as well as a grant program emphasizing low-cost innovations to cooling infrastructure. These recent measures demonstrate California’s focus on mitigating extreme heat beyond traditional wildfire recovery, and efforts to prioritize and try to limit the effects of these devastating disasters before they occur.

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. For more information about the program, please visit here.

The Disaster Resilience Program is funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions.

Photo of Christopher Kerrigan

By Christopher Kerrigan, 2021 Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program Lead Fellow Christopher is hosted by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

As a native Californian, I’ve experienced my share of earthquakes and wildfires. Still, nothing prepared me for the difficulty of practicing tenant law in Southeast Louisiana after Hurricane Ida.

When disaster strikes, tenant lawyers like me must first take care of ourselves and our loved ones; this means taking disaster preparation seriously. As soon as we are safe, we are thrust into action on behalf of our clients, helping them navigate the plethora of legal housing issues that arise in the aftermath.

After a natural disaster, communication with clients is paramount. If possible, tenant lawyers should prepare to secure client files safely for working on the road or in remote locations.  We must take the time to reach our clients to ensure they can make informed legal decisions. Below are some common issues that my host organization dealt with after Hurricane Ida, including some practical tips for assisting tenants with each case.

Rent Obligation after a Hurricane

Many are surprised to learn this, but despite the magnitude of Hurricane Ida, tenants were still required to pay timely rent in the aftermath.

In Louisiana, a hurricane is considered an “Act of God.” In most cases, this requires the tenant to tender rent unless the tenant’s home is “substantially impaired.” If substantially impaired, a tenant might be able to argue that they owe less rent or dissolve the lease. Unfortunately, “substantially impaired,” a legal term of art, is not defined under Louisiana law. Still, if the damage to the unit prevents the tenant from accessing or using a portion of the home, such as a kitchen or bedroom, we argue that a tenant is entitled to a reduction in rent in accordance with the value of their loss.

In most cases, we advise our clients to pay rent, but we also consult with them to learn the extent of damage to their homes. In the most severe cases, we can assist the client with contacting the landlord and negotiating a resolution, such as dissolving the lease or reducing the tenant’s rent. If the landlord is unwilling to negotiate a reduction in rent, a tenant can then sue their landlord and ask the court to do so.

Simply withholding a portion of the rent puts the tenant at risk of a landlord seeking eviction for nonpayment of rent, so tenants should practice caution and consult with an attorney before doing so. Fortunately, If the landlord pursues an eviction against a tenant for nonpayment of rent, the tenant may argue that their home was “substantially impaired” as a defense against eviction.

Evictions

Under Louisiana law, a landlord cannot evict a tenant without filing an eviction and going to court… unless a tenant abandons the property.

Thankfully, the Governor of Louisiana delayed all legal deadlines for 30 days after Hurricane Ida, which effectively meant the landlord could not proceed with new or ongoing evictions until after the deadline. The suspension of deadlines allowed tenants and their legal advocates crucial breathing room to resolve disputes with landlords short of evictions.

Unfortunately, not every Justice of the Peace in Louisiana halted evictions proceedings per the Governor’s orders. The best way to prevent an eviction in violation of the Governor’s mandate is to make sure the court knows about it.

To protect against claims that tenants abandoned the premises, tenant lawyers usually advise clients to contact their landlords and share a written record expressing that they are not abandoning their units.

Repairs and Habitability Issues

After a natural disaster, contractors and builders are often booked up through no fault of the landlord. However, landlords must maintain the premises in livable condition and make necessary repairs. Tenant lawyers advise their clients to notify their landlord immediately by text or email of repairs needed due to storm damage.

The Repair and Deduct Law in Louisiana allows tenants to make the repairs themselves (or hire someone else) if the repair is deemed “necessary.” The tenant must notify the landlord in writing of the need for the repair and wait a reasonable amount of time before repairing themselves. Once completed, the tenant can deduct the repair cost, including materials and labor, from the next month’s rent. If a landlord is unresponsive, a tenant may use the refusal as grounds to dissolve the lease or utilize the state’s Repair and Deduct Law.

If a tenant must make use of the repair and deduct option, they should consult with lawyer before doing so. Lawyers can use their experience and judgment to advise the client of what repairs a court would likely find “necessary” and ensure the client provides the proper written notice.

Assisting Tenants with FEMA Claims

Tenants who have to evacuate or have personal property damage due to a disaster may be eligible for rental assistance and other aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Recouping the expenses incurred during a disaster can be a lifeline for a tenant on a limited income.

At my host organization, we advise our clients to file a claim with FEMA and help them navigate the process. We also encourage clients to document the damages to the home by taking pictures after the storm so we can ideally compare them to previous photos.

FEMA has established community centers throughout Louisiana for people to file claims in person if needed. Sometimes, the most powerful way to assist our clients is to notify them that applications are available.

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. For more information about the program, please visit here.

When disaster strikes, tenant lawyers like me must first take care of ourselves and our loved ones; this means taking disaster preparation seriously. As soon as we are safe, we are thrust into action on behalf of our clients, helping them navigate the plethora of legal housing issues that arise in the aftermath.

The Disaster Resilience Program is funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions. 

Photo of Jordan Davis
Photo of Jordan Davis

By Jordan Davis, 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program. Jordan is hosted by Disability Rights California.

Each year the number of wildfires in California increases. In 2021, there were over 300 wildfires recorded by Cal Fire, and in the first two months of 2022, there have been nearly 200 wildfires. People with disabilities face additional life-threatening concerns from unpredictable power shutoffs.

Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) require utility companies to turn off power to specific neighborhoods determined to be a high fire-threat under certain weather conditions. When the power goes out unexpectedly, Californians who rely on medical equipment to live independently may be left helpless and in the dark. These shutoffs can last days on end, placing people who are dependent on medical equipment and temperature-controlled medicine at risk of harm or death.

Without backup power or additional batteries, these power shutoffs create medical emergencies for people who depend on things like life-support, power wheelchairs, insulin, etc. The price of purchasing additional batteries or generators with enough power to supply medical equipment is burdensome and most insurance providers don’t cover these needs. Right now, legal aid and community-based organizations are working together to find solutions to this issue.

One of the first calls I received at my host organization Disability Rights California was from a person experiencing multiple power shutoffs who relied on a power wheelchair and lifts to live independently. The lack of warnings meant that every time a PSPS event occurred in her area she would have to call emergency services to come help her move. To address this issue, we provided the client with information on PSPS notifications and programs her utility company provides to people with disabilities, while we continue to advocate for policy change within the medical insurance industry.

As “fire season” becomes more of a year-round occurrence, it places additional burdens on people with disabilities. Increasing awareness about disaster preparedness can help the most disadvantaged feel safe and be safe.

As 'fire season' becomes more of a year-round occurrence, it places additional burdens on people with disabilities. Increasing awareness about disaster preparedness can help the most disadvantaged feel safe and be safe.

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. For more information about the program, please visit here.

The Disaster Resilience Program is currently funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions. 

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.

By Stephanie Duke and Maria F. Vazquez, 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellows who served in the Disaster Resilience Program. Stephanie currently works as a staff attorney at Disability Rights Texas and Maria is a staff attorney at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

Resilience after a disaster or emergency is directly related to preparedness. Marginalized and vulnerable communities are continuously and disproportionately impacted by tragic incidences because inequities or barriers faced in everyday life are exacerbated by the event. For some, preparedness is a luxury, as those who do not have the financial means or other available resources cannot respond or recover to disasters and emergencies as quickly or efficiently as those who do.

For the immigrant community, disaster preparedness should involve creating a safety plan that includes protecting important immigration documents and ensuring that individuals know what to do if they have a case that is currently pending.  Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep immigration documents and correspondence secure. If you are forced to evacuate your home, take your documents with you. It is also recommended to keep digital copies of these documents, so be sure to scan or take pictures in case these documents are lost or destroyed.
  • If you have a pending immigration case and you must relocate, you need to notify each immigration agency where you have a case. This includes U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, ICE, and the immigration court.
  • You may be eligible for emergency disaster assistance regardless of your immigration status.
  • For information regarding office closures or appointment cancellations, visit the following websites:

Building resiliency for the disability community also requires tangible resources, as well as awareness of the plans that the local jurisdiction has in place to ensure equitable access to all response and recovery measures. If you are transportation dependent and require a wheelchair accessible vehicle, find out if your city or county has a plan to provide such equipment for evacuations. If you are healthcare dependent, you should ask if your city or county has a plan to staff emergency sheltering operations to address your needs. If you are power dependent for durable medical equipment, look into whether your city or county has a plan in place if there are sustained power outages. Inclusive emergency planning, the process cities or counties implement in blue-sky times, can promulgate equitable response and recovery only if it is truly a whole community approach. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Ask the right questions, to the right people before a disaster:
    • Contact your local emergency management department to ask questions about plans/procedures and how specific accommodations will be made for your needs.
    • Inquire with providers (healthcare, durable medical equipment, mental health, etc.) about back-up plans and resources if services are disrupted or you are displaced.
  • Protect important documents and contacts; have a hard copy and upload or save them digitally.
  • Visit Ready.gov to learn about disaster and emergency resources available to you at local, state, and federal levels.

All attorneys can play a role to further resiliency in our most disaster-prone communities.   Regardless of whether you provide direct legal services or support pro bono efforts in a response measure, you can help prepare all your clients for the next disaster or emergency by simply recognizing that the barriers they face every day will be compounded in their most tragic and chaotic of times. In blue-sky times, be the advocate that inquires and instills a community-lawyering approach to help problem-solve, identify resources, and wrap around services to mitigate the impact our communities will encounter in disasters. It is no longer a question of if a disaster or emergency will happen, but when, and what do my clients need to recover.

Be the advocate that inquires and instills a community-lawyering approach to help problem-solve, identify resources, and wrap around services to mitigate the impact our communities will encounter in disasters.

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. For more information about the program, please visit here.

The Disaster Resilience Program is funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions.