FEMA – Legal Service

January 30, 2011 by  

As you might guess, the services of lawyers are in very high demand in the aftermath of nearly every natural disaster.  People with damaged homes have questions about their insurance policies.  Landlords and tenants want to know their rights when their properties become uninhabitable due to failures in water and gas lines.  And sadly, scam artists prey on disaster victims who then seek out consumer protection advice in attempts to escape from unconscionable contract provisions.

Pursuant to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief Act (42 USC 5141, et seq.), whenever the President of the United States declares a “major disaster” anywhere in the United States or its territories, federal assistance is made available to supplement the efforts and resources of state and local governments and voluntary relief organizations.

The Stafford Act specifically addresses the provision of free legal services to low-income individuals affected by a disaster (see 42 USC 5182).  FEMA is responsible for implementation of the Stafford Act and, to do so, has adopted a variety of rules and regulations.  Among those is a specific regulation governing the provision of Disaster Legal Services (DLS):  44 CFR 206.164.

Whenever the President declares a major disaster, the DLS program can be activated.  In an attempt to implement the legal services mandate of the Stafford Act, FEMA’s Office of Disaster Assistance Programs entered into an Agreement with the ABA and its Young Lawyers Division (ABA/YLD) for the ABA and its nationwide affiliates to provide volunteer lawyers to the DLS program.

According to this Agreement, after a disaster is declared, FEMA contacts the ABA/YLD Representative for that region.  It is then the ABA/YLD Representative’s job to ensure that legal assistance services are provided, either on-site at the disaster location, through a Disaster Recovery Center, or via a 1-800 telephone bank where callers’ concerns are either addressed immediately or referred to a volunteer attorney.

What Are Volunteer FEMA Attorneys Expected to Do?

The main job for volunteers is to be ready and willing to provide legal assistance following a disaster that occurs in your region or local area.  Within a few days of any catastrophic event, we will know if the President of the United States will declare the event a major disaster.

If so, FEMA will then determine whether or not to offer victims its Disaster Legal Services.  When that occurs, volunteers are contacted and instructed on where and when to report.  Volunteers can assist with screening incoming calls to a Disaster Legal Services hotline and/or actually accept pro bono referrals generated from that hotline.

Staffing the Disaster Legal Services Hotline

Typically, a DLS hotline becomes operational a few weeks after a major disaster is declared.  This gives the disaster victims time to attend to more pressing matters, such as obtaining shelter and food and addressing their immediate losses and needs.

After a short while, however, disaster victims begin to recognize that they need legal help putting their lives back in order. The DLS hotline number will be advertised in the local area’s newspapers, posted in shelters, and generally available from all governmental agencies responding to the disaster.  Calls will start rolling in about 2-3 weeks after the disaster first strikes and usually involve on one or more of the areas listed above.

Recruiting Volunteers Now Ensures Preparedness Later

Over the last two decades, this arrangement between FEMA, the ABA/YLD, and local bar associations has proven successful.  Most recently, the program provided disaster legal relief to victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks.  In Washington , the program was activated in response to last year’s earthquake as well as to the floods of 1996 and 1997.  For more information about the program’s success stories and to find resources, please visit the ABA ‘s Web site at www.abanet.org/ and www.abanet.org/barserv/disaster.


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