Natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes are awe inspiring forces that can cause extreme levels of destruction and devastation to the communities they impact. In recent months, Hurricane Barry caused flooding and disruption of vital services in New Orleans and the surrounding areas; and two powerful earthquakes rattled southern California. And nearly two years later. Puerto Rico is still reeling and recovering from the tragic effects of Hurricane Maria.
On Lawyer 2 Lawyer, host Craig Williams is joined by attorney Daniel Wade, coordinator of the Disaster Legal Services Program, attorney Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, Pro Bono Net’s Disaster Response Legal Fellow, and attorney Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo, deputy executive director of the non-profit organization Puerto Rico Legal Services, to discuss what an individual can do to prepare themselves for natural disasters, how lawyers can assist in the aftermath, and their experiences working as lawyers during and after these catastrophic events.
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Lawyer 2 Lawyer – Law News and Legal Topics
Natural Disasters and Dealing with the Aftermath
Dan Wade: I have spent a lot of time in Disaster Recovery Centers, which are like one-stop shops that FEMA sets up after a disaster, and people are coming in and they are getting help with complicated issues, insurance issues, and filling out their FEMA applications, but sometimes they have to spend days and weeks just getting their driver’s license and birth certificates and all those kinds of things, which often are necessary when you are applying for benefits or when you are trying to prove ownership or occupancy.
Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz: The legal issues specifically evolve over time post-disaster, specifically with major disaster sites, the ones in California or Texas and Puerto Rico. We are talking about landlord-tenant issues weeks after the disaster, housing issues, FEMA and Small Business Administration applications, unemployment issues, and replacing lost documents.
Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo: So the recovery agencies and the emergency agencies in Puerto Rico were like trying to deal with the situation that was never before experienced in parts of it. That was the thing that made it more difficult for all of us here.
Intro: Welcome to the award-winning podcast Lawyer 2 Lawyer with J. Craig Williams and Robert Ambrogi, bringing you the latest legal news and observations with the leading experts in the legal profession. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
- Craig Williams: Welcome to Lawyer 2 Lawyer on the Legal Talk Network. I am Craig Williams coming to you from a sunny and warm Southern California. I write a legal blog named May it Please the Court and have a book out titled ‘The Sled’.
And before we introduce today’s topic, we would like to thank our sponsor Clio.
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Well, natural disasters, like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes are awe-inspiring forces that can cause extreme levels of destruction and devastation to the communities they impact. In recent months Hurricane Barry caused flooding and disruption to the vital services in New Orleans and its surrounding areas, and two powerful earthquakes rocked and rattled Southern California.
And now, some nearly two years later, Puerto Rico is still recovering from the tragic effects of Hurricane Maria.
So how do communities deal with the aftermath of a natural disaster and how can lawyers help? Today on Lawyer 2 Lawyer we will discuss what an individual can do to prepare for natural disasters, how lawyers can assist in the aftermath and our guests will discuss their experiences working as lawyers during and after these catastrophic events. And we have got some good examples right now with the current storms we are suffering in Iowa and Nebraska.
And to do that we have got a great show for you today. Our first guest is attorney Daniel Wade. He is the Coordinator of the Disaster Legal Services Program, a joint venture of the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, and FEMA. The Disaster Legal Services Program works in collaboration with state, local, and federal partners.
Welcome to the show Dan.
Dan Wade: Happy to be here. Thank you.
- Craig Williams: And our next guest is Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz. She is Pro Bono Net’s Disaster Response Legal Fellow. Jeanne is a bilingual attorney and works to expand free legal resources to disaster survivors. Welcome to the show Jeanne.
Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz: Thank you for covering this Craig. Great to be here.
- Craig Williams: And finally we have attorney Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo. He is the Deputy Director of the non-profit organization Puerto Rico Legal Services. Welcome to the show Alejandro.
Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo: Hi. Thank you for the invitation. It’s an honor to be here with you.
- Craig Williams: Well Alejandro, let’s turn the first question to you. Puerto Rico just suffered through Hurricane Maria, how did it fare?
Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo: Well, Puerto Rico was impacted by two hurricanes in 2017, Irma and two weeks later Hurricane Maria. While we were recovering from the Irma aftermath, we received the impact of Hurricane Maria, which wiped out the island, as you all know. We lost all communications inside the island and for the outside. People lost houses, people lost properties, their belongings, everything, most of the people in Puerto Rico.
So, most of us have never experienced a situation like this before so it was like a first situation like this for Puerto Ricans. These complicated things since people were not — and most of us were not properly prepared for these situations. And afterwards the recovery efforts were very difficult, because although Puerto Rico is a small island, there are people living in remote areas; we have a very mountainous island.
So roads were closed, many of them were damaged, rivers out of their banks and everything, so recovery was very, very difficult. Adding to that is the lack of a plan for proper recovery efforts. So all of those elements complicated things.
So we were almost like trying to improvise on the effort that we were making, almost a week without communications, and communications inside the island. So the recovery agencies and the emergency agencies in Puerto Rico were like trying to deal with the situation that was never before experienced in Puerto Rico. That was the thing that made it more difficult for all of us here.
- Craig Williams: Jeanne, what’s the reality of the devastation that people have experienced? Here in Northern California last year, there were some severe fires that wiped out entire communities.
Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz: Right. So I think there is no right answer for this, because every case is different, because every disaster is different, and there is a lot that plays into that equation, like geography, language, resources, outreach, federal and state programs.
But the first thing that people should do is visit fema.gov/disasters and look up for the disaster to see what programs are available in their area that can help them go through that recovery process.
And I think the most important to remember is that the legal issues specifically evolve over time post-disaster, specifically with major disasters like the ones in California or Texas and Puerto Rico. We are talking about landlord-tenant issues weeks after the disaster, housing issues, FEMA and Small Business Administration applications, unemployment issues, and replacing lost documents.
And then the months that follow, we are talking about FEMA Appeals or SBA Appeals, eviction, displacement and contractor fraud, so people who relocated to a new location, helping them with any legal documents needed for that transition.
And then years after the disaster we see foreclosures and bankruptcy and FEMA recoupment and community redevelopment and sometimes even litigation to address systemic challenges.
So I don’t think that it’s one right answer for that, but just a combination of all those issues that people face.
- Craig Williams: Certainly. So Dan, what is it that people should be doing? What’s the legal framework of how people can prepare for these kind of disasters? Is there insurance available? Who do you go to get this insurance from? Are there emergency lists that people are supposed to prepare and have stock items to be able to have resources after the natural disaster? What are the steps to prepare?
Dan Wade: Well, FEMA does have some great resources that give people a sense of what they should be doing to prepare. Insurance is an important component, if you can afford it, and if you can purchase it. It does get complicated because with the different kinds of disasters, you are going to have your homeowners insurance, which covers fire and a lot of wind events. And then you are going to have flood insurance that covers flood events, and earthquake insurance that covers earthquake.
So the insurance piece does get complicated, which is one reason why benefits such as FEMA assistance or SBA loans can be helpful for those people who maybe didn’t have the right insurance in place or weren’t able to obtain it.
And then as Jeanne mentioned, recreating lost documents, and a lot of those issues can be helped along if you keep important documents in a separate location and that you have yourself a disaster plan. And I think most businesses and families and individuals should have some sort of plan to keep things safe and keep things accessible because that does help make it easier.
I have spent a lot of time in Disaster Recovery Centers, which are like one-stop shops that FEMA sets up after a disaster, and people are coming in and they are getting help with complicated issues, insurance issues, and filling out their FEMA applications, but sometimes they have to spend days and weeks just getting their driver’s license and birth certificates and all those kinds of things, which often are necessary when you are applying for benefits or when you are trying to prove ownership or occupancy. So that is a crucial component I would say.
- Craig Williams: Alejandro, where do lawyers come in, after a natural disaster hits, how can lawyers help?
Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo: There are many instances where lawyers can help. The FEMA issues are very — the most widespread situations here in Puerto Rico. But not only after the disaster, but before the disaster, for example, in Maria Hurricane we learned that people were required to approve — for example, have utility bills for the six months prior to the disaster to prove occupancy and/or ownership of the property to receive the FEMA benefits. That’s something that most — I think no one knew before the hurricane and after the hurricane, FEMA issues, helping our people to fill the documents.
An important — very big problem in Puerto Rico is that the FEMA regulations and the laws in Puerto Rico differ in Puerto Rico. We have the Civil Code which comes from Spain and title issues and property law is quite very different from FEMA regulations.
So FEMA, for example, requires documents and deeds for people to prove ownership; in Puerto Rico, people doesn’t need to have legal documents or deeds to prove out that they are the owners of the property. Many lands were transferred from generations to generations and so people started to build their houses and they have been living there for many, many, many years and they don’t have legal documents since they have been constructing their houses there for generations.
Also issues with — for example, domestic violence issues in the shelters arise. People getting out from Puerto Rico with their kids and so courts open for emergency situations, like custody situations, for domestic violence situations, issues like minors that were thrown into the United States to receive better healthcare, for example, people that had health issues and/or education issues.
So lawyers have a lot of work before and after a disaster and we have been — up until today we have been sending attorneys to different FEMA CRCs to help out people in the legal issues.
- Craig Williams: Jeanne, if a lawyer decides to get involved with these kind of helping out with natural disaster legal situations what should they do? How do they get involved with organizations like yours?
Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz: As a best practice, the best thing lawyers can do is learn about the issues and familiarize themselves with the resources out there, I would say before taking a role as a volunteer. There are many resources out there, a lot of good stuff with a lot of subject matter experts covering the hot topics and a lot of them are housed on disasterlegalaid.org. So that would be a good first step for getting involved and it actually helps groups on the ground that are often busy in response mode to have support from a lawyer who is well-versed on the issues.
I would say reach out to your local bar association, law school clinics or other groups helping with legal issues to learn more about available opportunities.
If there is a Katrina Rule, which is an administrative order issued by the Supreme Court of a state or a territory allowing out-of-state lawyers to provide pro bono legal services in the affected area, take advantage of that and learn more about the rule and any restrictions to practice law there when taking on a disaster-related case.
And finally, I would say determine how you can help and how much time you can commit to it. I think help comes in a lot of ways, whether it’s through a hotline, FEMA appeals, insurance claims, providing training to other lawyers on a specific issue, taking on a case, or helping with updating a statewide disaster legal manual.
I think there is often a surge of volunteer lawyers after a disaster, which is good, but the need really comes in the months and years that follow. So I think it’s important to know what your skills are and how you can best support the efforts with them.
- Craig Williams: Dan, you have been through this many times. You have been to Disaster Recovery Centers. Walk us through what happens when someone walks in the door. Their home is destroyed, they are devastated, they have nothing, they have just got a blank look in their eyes. You meet them at the door, what happens next?
Dan Wade: Well, the DRCs are going to be set up where the president has declared the disaster and authorized individual assistance, and when you have individual assistance you have the ability of survivors to register with FEMA and to become eligible for FEMA benefits and Small Business Administration loans. And so the first step is to register with FEMA, and at a DRC you are going to have FEMA representatives there who will do that for you on-site. You can also do it on FEMA’s website or over the phone.
But if people are able to travel from where they are staying, if their home has been destroyed, a lot of people are not going to be staying in the same areas, but if they are in the same area and they are able to travel to the Disaster Recovery Center, they can do a lot of this stuff in person.
And then they’ll walk-through the Disaster Recovery Center and they’ll see what’s available. Typically, we’ll have pro bono attorneys from the local legal aid providers. In the DRC we’ll have the Department of Insurance of the State, we’ll have non-profits who are providing meal services or providing toothbrushes and hairbrushes and essentials and things that people have lost.
You’re going to have the DMV who is going to be providing driver’s licenses and recreating lost documents. There really — it’s a one-stop shop but I’ve seen people spend hours and days in these centers and when I sat there at some of the DRCs I’ve seen the same people come in over and over and it does take a long time but it is typically a place where they can at least start the long road to recovery.
- Craig Williams: Jeanne, right after a disaster there’s typically not a whole lot of communication that’s available, cell phone towers are down, regular people don’t carry many phone lines and they may be out as well, how do people find out about what’s available to them and where should they be going to find out?
Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz: I think a lot of that will depend on the — where the individual is in their community. So I think that organizations like the ones that again and Alejandro working, their outreach plan is critical to that response and several ways that I know that we promote the resources and share the resources available and help people with that information is through social media, press releases which is published by the American Bar Association. There’s other organizations’ community events, legal clinics, legal brigades that really take charge of working with organizations on the ground to expand as much as information as possible to the individuals affected by the disaster.
- Craig Williams: Thank you. Well, before we move on to our next segment, we’re going to take a quick break to hear a message from our sponsor. We’ll be right back.
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- Craig Williams: And welcome back to Lawyer 2 Lawyer. I’m Craig Williams and with us today is Attorney Daniel Wade. He is the Coordinator of the Disaster of Legal Services Program.
Attorney Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, Pro Bono Net’s Disaster Response Legal Fellow and attorney Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo, the executive director of the Non-Profit Organization, Puerto Rico Legal Services.
Alejandro, before the break we were talking about involvement of attorneys and what people can do and where they go for this kind of help but how have attorneys become involved in Puerto Rico after these two hurricanes?
Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo: Well, right after the hurricane we provided 00:18:13 act training for all of our attorneys and to that training we invited other attorneys that were interested in helping out people. So we provided several trainings for several days, so that attorneys could learn how to deal with the survivors that were going primarily to the DRCs and the reason for that is that since Puerto Rico was so devastated, people were going to the DRCs and to other offices opened by the government to see how food, water, communications with families outside the United States and information and any other help that they could receive since so many people lost their houses. So we started out sending our attorneys to the DRC standard, we’re opening throughout the island. We received an invitation from FEMA so that attorneys could help people filling out their documents with the legal issues that were arising, that were a lot because as I said before FEMA regulations and the loss of Puerto Rico collided primarily on the issues of property and title.
So since the beginning of the DRC’s opening, we started out staffing and your attorneys on weekly schedules that we started to publish on our Facebook page for example and sending out every week to FEMA personnel so they could know and they could inform survivors the days and now our attorneys were going to be in the DRCs that were eventually changed to CRCs, (Community Recovery Centers) and that generated a lot of interest from our attorneys and from attorneys throughout the island on helping out people. The courts were closed right after the hurricane so many attorneys volunteer to help out survivors.
- Craig Williams: Well, Dan, disasters not only affect people in homes they also affect businesses and law firms. Do you have any suggestions to law firms about what to do to prepare for a natural disaster?
Daniel Wade: I think that’s a great question. I think that as I mentioned earlier, every organization, every business should have a disaster recovery plan because it’s often can be the case that your office is affected by the disaster, but it’s also possible and likely that your employees are going to be affected by the disaster.
Actually I have an interesting example of that down in Louisiana after the Baton Rouge floods, we went down to help set up the Legal Services program to deal with the flooding there, and the legal aid office that we met with some of the attorneys there, they actually had attorneys in the office who had been flooded out and now couldn’t come to work and had to deal with their own issues.
So I think there’s a huge challenge there and it makes sense to have a plan and process to be able to communicate with your employees, if you have backup systems for your case files and backup systems for all of your important documents, it’s possible that a lot of that stuff is going to get destroyed and that you’re also going to have your employees affected by it.
So it’s a real issue and I think having a disaster plan as a business is just as important as having it as an individual or a family.
- Craig Williams: Well, Jeanne, natural disasters not only occur here in the United States, they also occur internationally and some of them are even worse than the ones that we go through like volcanoes and other types of things. As an American traveling overseas what should an American be doing caught in a natural disaster overseas?
Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz: That’s a great question. Based on my experience here, I think that the most important thing is to have a plan and know about the resources that can help you.
For example, there are many resources ready.gov that could apply also if you’re traveling to another country and experiencing a disaster. They all have tips on what to do to prepare and if you don’t know what to prepare for what, I think that’s a little bit harder, right, but try to cover your bases as much as you can.
And in terms of watching out for your legal health, for any disaster, it’s very important to document everything, meaning taking inventory of everything, taking pictures of everything, and gathering all of the important documents from you and your family and taking copies of them and keeping them in a safe place.
So that includes birth certificates, ID cards, a documents that prove where you live or you live, insurance and financial documents and other documents like medical records. So I think it’s important to have a plan.
- Craig Williams: Alejandro, in the situation in Puerto Rico, it has to be that there was a significant loss of public’s resources to the people of Puerto Rico, what happens when there’s nothing available to help you out?
Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo: That’s a very good and difficult question. When there’s nothing to help us out, we have to invent and try to do our best to identify the situation, the problems, and try to identify what we can give out to the communities and the people, what we are and what we can do to help out.
And so like us, many other entities and people throughout the island did exactly that. They thought, what I can do best to help and go through this situation and help other people and start the recovery efforts. So that’s like — that’s what we did.
We are attorneys that’s what we have legal services provided the services that the people needed, the legal services that the people needed. Many other entities formed like were united one with the other to help out and to reach out for the communities.
For example, we received invitations and requests from other non-government organizations that they were going to a certain community to hand out food, water, gave out medical services and so they asked us to send attorneys for legal services that the people requested, many assessments, affidavits or people that have had doubts about legal situations.
So that’s what we did in order to cope with the situation and try to recover as fast and as efficient as possible.
- Craig Williams: Well, Dan, there are also — in natural disasters there are people who watch them from the sidelines and are not affected by those natural disasters but yet they want to help. Sometimes, that help comes in the form of money, sometimes it’s an assistance, but what are the appropriate organizations to turn to for people that are watching from the outside, watching these disasters occur and want to help out?
You hear a lot on the Internet about how sometimes the money doesn’t get to where it’s intended to go to in other types of fraudulent situations, what’s the safest and the best thing for people to do that want to help out?
Daniel Wade: Well, that’s a great question. In terms of attorneys who are sitting outside of the disaster zone and have the ability to help one of the things that you can do and Jeanne mentioned this earlier was to see if your State Bar or your local Bar Association has a disaster-response program, and typically, that’s actually the way that the American Bar Association Disaster Legal Services Program gets involved is that we help build up the state and local level disaster-response programs.
And so we help coordinate a hotline, gather the attorneys who can do the volunteering, and sometimes those attorneys are already employees of the legal services providers, sometimes those are volunteers. And one thing that’s been kind of an interesting development in the last few disasters, Puerto Rico being an example, is that attorneys — a firm across the country actually will get involved on a remote basis to help people with the FEMA appeals process. And so that’s one of the things that the American Bar Association Disaster Legal Services Program has been involved in.
Cultivating is a volunteer list of attorneys and say New York, who want to help do appeals for somebody in Puerto Rico or somebody out in here in California who wants to help somebody who’s in the Virgin Islands is experiencing an issue.
And it often is the case that there are a lot more attorneys who can help outside of the disaster area than inside of the disaster area and so connecting those things through the American Bar Association or through locals and State Bars and also through pro bono and other resources. There are a lot of ways that you can get involved even if you’re not right there in the middle of the disaster.
- Craig Williams: Great. Thank you. Well, folks, it looks like we’ve just about reached the end of our program. At this time, we’d like to take this opportunity to invite our guests to share their final thoughts as well as their contact information, websites, so that you can get involved a little bit further.
And Dan, since you were right on that topic, let’s turn it right back to you.
Daniel Wade: Sure. So I would encourage folks to visit the Disaster Legal Services Program website. The address is actually quite long and people won’t write it down, so what I suggest is just google ‘Disaster Legal Services’ and it’s the first hit that you get on Google and it takes you to the American Bar Association website that has all that information on the active disaster recoveries, hotlines, how to get involved, and a number of other resources there, in my contact info and the rest of my team’s contact info is there.
- Craig Williams: And Jeanne, we will turn it over you to get your contact information as well as your final thoughts.
Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz: Sure. I would say just a matter of knowing and acknowledging that disasters are here to stay. I know that FEMA recently released a report saying that at least the 2017 disasters affected close to 8% of the entire U.S. population, that’s very scary. So this is something that really affects low-income communities across the U.S. and it’s something where lawyers are very needed.
And also, people’s encounter with the federal assistance specifically, which can be confusing because of a lot of bureaucracy happens at a time when the individual has more than likely endured a traumatic experience, such as losing a loved one or their home or having to relocate to a new location or a shelter because they can’t return to their home.
So bearing that in mind while supporting a client or a survivor through their recovery I think is key. If people want to learn more about the resources at Pro Bono Net Houses, they can visit disasterlegalaid.org, specifically for survivors we have a lot of resources for their recovery and self-help tools.
And if attorneys want to get involved, they can visit disasterlegalaid.org/advocates to learn more about the network and other ways to collaborate and volunteer, and my email is [email protected].
- Craig Williams: Thank you, Jeanne. And finally Alejandro, your final thoughts and contact information please.
Alejandro Figueroa-Quevedo: Worked once into the 2019 hurricane season, so we might be — hopefully not but we can be and potentially be impacted with the hurricane or any storm. So it’s very important to educate people about the rights, about what they need to have and the documents they need to — in order to be more prepared for a situation like the ones we encountered in 2007 with Maria hurricane, or we have a website which is servicioslegales.org.
That’s where we have all our information and we have a 1-800 number, which is in that Disaster Legal Aid website, and that’s the contact for our services also.
So thanks for this interview and an honor to be here with you.
- Craig Williams: Thank you, Alejandro. Thank you very much. So if you’d like what you heard today, please rate us in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or your favorite podcasting app. You can also visit us at legaltalknetwork.com where you can leave a comment on today’s show and sign up for our newsletter.
I’m Craig Williams. Thanks for listening. You can join us next time for another great legal topic, when you want legal think Lawyer 2 Lawyer.
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