Experts discuss disaster preparedness and the role of civil legal aid in recovery on LSC’s “Talk Justice” podcast. September is National Disaster Preparedness Month. Since 2022 the federal government has issued more than 75 major disaster declarations across the U.S. and its territories. Yet even with the increasing frequency and ferocity of natural disasters, the overwhelming majority of Americans are unprepared if disaster strikes.
Mark Sloan: I believe that the worst time that they get involved is after a disaster. Once they’ve been impacted, they don’t know what they should have done prior to and they’re in their reactionary mode and that’s what delays our recovery. It takes all of us to make our community safe or more secure but also more resilient in a post-disaster environment.
Intro: Equal access to justice is a core American value. In each episode of Talk Justice, an LSC Podcast, we will explore ways to expand access to justice and illustrate why it is important to the legal community, business, government, and the general public. Talk Justice is sponsored by The Leaders Council of the Legal Services Corporation.
Lynn Jennings: Hello, welcome to the Talk Justice Podcast. I’m Lynn Jennings Vice President for Grants Management at the Legal Services Corporation and host of today’s podcast focusing on Disaster Preparedness and the Role of Civil Legal Aid in Disaster Recovery. As some of you may know, September is National Preparedness Month. Since 2022, there have been more than 75 major disaster declarations by the federal government across the US and its territories. This number doesn’t include federal emergency declarations or state or locally declared disasters or emergencies. In the last several weeks, we’ve seen the devastation brought the Maui wildfires and Hurricane Idalia. Yet even with the increasing frequency and ferocity of natural disasters, the overwhelming majority of Americans are unprepared if disaster strikes. The impact of natural disasters disproportionately affects low-income individuals and families.
In the past several years, the Legal Services Corporation has received more than a hundred million dollars in supplemental disaster funding so that our grantees in the most impacted areas can help low-income disaster survivors with the range of disaster-related civil-legal issues. Post disaster, survivors often need help obtaining copies of important documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses and Social Security cards to apply for or restore benefits and support. The need for adequate housing is a major issue for survivors of missed disasters. In addition, low-income and other vulnerable people who need housing after an emergency are more susceptible to scams and price gouging.
Joining us today to delve in to these issues are Mark Sloan, one of the nation’s leading emergency managers. Since 2008, he has been the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Coordinator for Harris County, Texas serving over 4.8 million residents covering more than 1770 square miles. Mr. Sloan is a member of the Department of Homeland Security First Responder Resource Group representing the National Emergency Management Discipline discussing potential needs of emergency managers and other first responders.
Shrushti Kothari is the Disaster Program Counsel at Legal Services Corporation. Prior to joining us Shrusti was a staff attorney in the Disaster Relief Unit at Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston, Texas. She’s also a member of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness and the Young Lawyer’s Division Disaster Legal Services Program.
Leslie Powell-Boudreaux is the Executive Director of Legal Services of Northern Florida. Prior to her current position, Leslie was a Senior Attorney with the program representing clients and housing consumer in domestic violence issues. She also served as a Senior Attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami’s Employment and Economic Security Unit.
Thank you all for joining us today. Mark, we’re going to start with you. You’ve been an Emergency Manager for a long time and had been involved in several disasters. Can you talk to us about the importance of disaster preparedness and what the three to five actions people can take to prepare themselves and their families for disaster?
Mark Sloan: I’d like to. I appreciate that. It’s an honor to be here. First, I would make a list of the essential items you and your family need in a crisis to be able to take care of yourself and your family for up to seven days. Don’t forget about your pets. Items should include food, water, medication, clothing. It’s like planning for a vacation except you didn’t really think you’re going anywhere. Oh, and remember that the clothes that you like the most are probably in your laundry room so make sure you stop by and grab those from the hamper. This may include important documents that you’re going to need if you have to evacuate. Take a picture of them. Store them on a thumb drive. So now that you have this list, the next thing I would do is start to assemble those items. Put those things together so that if you had to evacuate you could take them with you.
It’s going to take time. You’re not going to have minutes or hours to assemble your kits before you have to evacuate. Even if you had to stay at home, you’re going to need essential items to take care of yourself and your family. The third step I would prepare your home. Make sure it’s secure, resilient for potential disasters as you’re vulnerable to in your area. Additionally, I would make sure that your insurance is up to date. The last thing I would do is have a plan. Where would you go if you had to evacuate? To your family or friends? If you have this plan and you need to stay home, what are you going to do if you lose power? Remember your home is your kit as well. What’s your communication plan for your family? How do you communicate with your friends and your family if you’re not altogether? So those are some simple actions I think people should take to be prepared.
Lynn Jennings: Great. Thanks for that. Shrusti and Leslie, you see it from the legal side. Mark mentioned some of those important documents and based on your experience what are the most preventable post disaster related issues. If some had done just one thing, their recovery from a disaster can progress more smoothly, Shrusti?
Shrusti Kothari: Thank you for having me in the podcast today. I’d like to start by saying that preparedness is not just what Mark mentioned right now in having our food, essentials, everything ready. That’s the biggest part of it but another part of preparedness is legal preparedness. Having your title cleared is one of the biggest things that you can do to help make your recovery process smooth and simple in the long run. It’s something that people tend to forget to work on and it’s something that people don’t have time or the money or the understanding to work on, but title clearing is something that is a gift that keeps on giving like one of my past colleagues like to say.
Lynn Jennings: Shrusti, by title, you mean title to your home, right? Just so people are clear.
Shrusti Kothari: Correct. Title to your home, it could be your home, your mobile homes, your manufactured homes or your vehicles as well but for the most part, we are talking air property here. These are homes that folks have lived in for generations at a time sometimes and the title and the deed itself has never been fixed or updated as generations changed. One thing that you need to keep in mind is that as time passes it’s difficult to find these relatives, your cousins or close family members. People might have passed away. People might have become estranged or displaced in the hurricanes or whatever disasters suffering to at this current time so getting that cleared out before disaster hits will exponentially expedite your process of recovery because there will not be any assistance available to a homeowner who doesn’t have the home in their own name.
Leslie Powell-Boudreaux: I 100% agree that the title clearing issue is probably one of the hardest ones to think about because it is a long-term solution. It’s not something that you immediately think of and that kit bag as Mark has suggested and I do think that the suggested that you all made are spot-on. They were the top of my list as well. The other one that I would is to be prepared if you’re a renter, to know what your lease is. What are your responsibilities in your lease if disaster is headed your way? What are your landlord’s responsibilities? I think one of the hardest things to do is to actually have that conversation with your landlord as soon as you can, before the disaster if you can. Certainly, after the disaster to get an understanding of what the obligations are both in getting ready for the disaster and after it has passed what obligations you may have.
So many times there are disagreements in the wake of a disaster because people are dealing with insurance and damage to a home and lack of power, lack of water, other things that make that situation so much more difficult emotionally and physically and having an understanding of that ahead of time may allow all parties in that situation to have an understanding of what they need to and can do. And then also just looking for legal information sometimes what you landlord might be asking with you may not be what’s within the law and just knowing what your rights and responsibilities are ahead of time.
Lynn Jennings: Now we’re going to move on from preparedness to disaster response and recovery. Preparedness is only one element of the emergency management cycle. Being ready to respond is also key. So Mark, can you give us some insight into what goes into planning for disaster response and recovery and who needs to be at the table?
Mark Sloan: Oh, I think it’s very important that you have as many partners at the table throughout the entire emergency management cycle preparedness response recovery and mitigation. This includes legal aid as many residents will need guidance and assistance in a disaster environment. We worked closely with fire in law enforcement, non-profit partners, our faith-based organizations but most importantly, we worked with our residents. It’s up to each individual resident in our community to be prepared, to be able to recover and it’s important that this cycle that we talked about is connected if they’re not individual phases, it’s all part of one environment. And I think that by all of us being at the table make us more resilient in the time of a crisis.
Lynn Jennings: And when is the worst time for people to get involved in the cycle?
Mark Sloan: I believe that the worst time that they get involved is after a disaster. Once they’ve been impacted, they don’t know what they should have done prior to. They wish they would have, could have and then they’re trying to be prepared and they’re in the reactionary mode and that’s what delays our recovery as a community if we’re not prepared together. It takes all of us in order to make our community safe or more secure but also more resilient in a post disaster environment.
Lynn Jennings: And what does planning look? Is that something that you do constantly or is it just once in a while and then you put it on the shelf and forget about it?
Mark Sloan: It’s a 365-day, every day process. You’re always reviewing your plans. You have to make sure that you have accounted for everyone and everything. Our community grows. Our homes grow. We changed pets. We have now a dog and a cat and you have to plan for those things but you also have to plan when your community goes from one million people to 1.2 million people. You have to plan if you’re going to have road construction that’s going to last for years, what your evacuation process are going to be. So there’s a lot of things in our environment that are constantly changing therefore our plan should be adjusted as well.
Lynn Jennings: Great. Thank you. Shrusti, when disaster strikes what should the legal aid organization do to help low-income disaster survivors?
Shrusti Khotari: So as Mark said the best time to get involved is before disaster and a part of that includes being in the community before and after disaster. So once a disaster strikes if you’re already in the community and folk is nowhere to find, who you are and what exactly your organization is capable of doing, it makes a damage easier to help folks. Once you are in your own community and people know that you’re there you need to figure out what the issues are that are affecting your disaster survivors in your region. Not only do you need to know it and provide education about the legal issues that are there, you also need to help teach the audience your clients as well as other non-profit organizations about what exactly is a legal issue. If they don’t know what a legal issue is folks will not be coming to your door to ask for assistance. One example that I do have in my past is that many times the clients don’t realize that a security deposit not being returned by a landlord is a legal issue that landlord can help with. So helping identify those and bringing folks to your door is the next step. Disaster legal issues tend to be very cyclical and they occur in a specific timeframe on repeat. So this is something that legal organizations can prepare for and get flyers ready and get the information out into the world. There are issues that occur in the first three months, for six months and then again years on and disaster legal issues honestly don’t end as soon as the disaster leaves. They continue on for sometimes a decade going forward. I’m sure Leslie has a lot more information about that from on the ground perspective but if something doesn’t seem fair, it’s more than likely legal issues so spacious budding is step one.
Lynn Jennings: Leslie, you have to deal with a lot of disasters recently. Can you talk about the role your organization plays during the response phase of a disaster?
Leslie Powell-Boudreaux: Sure, of course. That partnership, that community partnership that Mark and Shrusti spoke to is critical because we rely on these partnerships to make sure that we’re collectively reaching these people in need to meet whatever their needs are. So we coordinate services with local food pantries, churches, other emergency management engaged agencies to make sure that one day they’ll have to reach out to us but also if we can partner at a disaster recovery center or at a food drop off or something like that just to make sure we’re getting information. That first phase post disaster as Shrusti was talking about the first basis, for us that’s a lot of community education, that’s a lot of getting information out there. Sometimes that phase starts ahead of the storm and again for us here in Florida hurricane season starts in May and so we start getting that information out much earlier on but not everything looks solid until they absolutely need it. So in that response phase, making sure that people have access to information on their rights and their responsibilities is really critical. We refer to it here as preventative legal services and it’s a way that hopefully we can help people stand core, stand off the legal issues that might come up in housing and tenant rights and contractor fraud and these kinds of things.
Then we also make sure that we’re there to provide advice and counsel with actual representation in these legal issues. As was mentioned, the legal issues may have to continue for years in making sure that we’re knowledgeable. We’re prepared for that but also that we’re making sure that others in the community have that same information as really critical so that no one has to look or wonder what the right answer is. They’re either aware of themselves or aware of someone who can then refer them to a legal aid program to address these civil legal needs. And one other thing I will add is we, with the support of LSC invested in mobile office units that are allowing us to get out in the community and a way post disaster that we’ve not been able to do before in places that might have been struck by hurricane but didn’t have office based, didn’t have power, didn’t have phone or self-service and giving us that opportunity to be in the community to better serve this populations and that modifies the need.
Lynn Jennings: And that’s an investment that many of our grantees are making post disaster because they need to get to places where the people are and who are most impacted and they still may be out of power, not have internet access so it’s been a real plus for many organizations. We talked about the cycle of emergency management. The immediate responses sometimes the shortest phase of things and recovery tends to be the longest phased. So Mark, as emergency manager, your organization gets the money to coordinate the immediate response and to oversee the recovery. Can you talk to us about how that recovery phase works and what your role is as an emergency manager and then what happens in the community?
Mark Sloan: Of course. Recovery to me is probably the most important phase that’s most likely in a lot of jurisdictions around the country doesn’t have enough emphasis in order to fulfill the need that the community is expecting. This is the area which the most partners need to be at the table where we have fire and law enforcement in that response phase and as you mentioned recovery takes a long time. In my 20 plus years of emergency management for every single day of response, there’s a thousand days of recovery. It isn’t going to happen very fast. It’s never as fast as our residents would like but we have numerous partners that need to be at the table including, in Texas it’s Lone Star Legal Aid. Many individuals are asking for legal advice in a crisis and they need to know where to go, where to turn and what that advice may be. Does it mean that legal action is to take plan, necessarily it’s just making them feel more comfortable in a crisis that they’re doing the right things because they’re already stress due to the impact that they just encounter. So since table are going to be numerous non-profit partners including the Red Cross, United Ways, Salvation Army, Team Rubicon, and so many others that come together from local government, engineering, evaluating the property, can it structurally withstand being rebuilt and utilized for your family. Bridges, roadways, accessibility, working with our private sector and public sector so that we can get stores open as quickly and effectively as possible. The most important part though is our residence. You need to be resilient as an individual in order to make sure that we do recover and you’re sitting at a table so that we have a lot of community groups that are also involved in our planning processes as we talked through recovery. As a local government, we are coordinating element federal funds that may be available. We also have coordinate with our non-profits and donations management. Many people need items and it could be tangible items such as furniture or clothing but it may also be just a dollar amount that helps get them back on their feet. So to me, the recovery phase is the most crucial point of the cycle where the number partners that need to be at the table get us back to a new state of normal as quickly and effectively as possible.
Lynn Jennings: How many disasters is your community recovering from now?
Mark Sloan: If we exclude COVID because the entire nation is all recovering from a post COVID-19 environment, we average a present to declare disaster every nine months in Harris County, Texas.
So we are probably right now have at least seven on the books that we’re working through from Hurricane Harvey, Winter Storm Uri. Right now, we’re dealing with drought and wild land fires. We have a declaration for that and it’s something that we deal regularly but other parts of the country, it’s every now and then and they don’t take the importance steps of being prepared for when a crisis does occur.
Lynn Jennings: Very true. Leslie, you’re working on a number of disasters as well. Can you tell us some of your recovery work and how many active disasters are you recovering from now?
Leslie Powell-Boudreaux: Sure. I can’t come up to seven but I think we’re in three in North Florida still recovering from Hurricane Michael which was five years ago. Specifically, dealing largely with a lot of these title issues that Shrusti mentioned earlier in order for people to rebuild their homes and get repairs onto their homes. In the interim of that, Hurricane Alley came through and all that western Boynton was much hit harder. The entire Boynton will got a lot of rain further damaging a lot of this Hurricane Michael damaged properties and causing further strife to those families. And then of course, most recently Hurricane Idalia which was just a week ago. So we’re still working through all of those and they’re all at very different stages. Recovering work looks different at those different stages. We have realized here in Florida and I think this is probably true in Texas and many other places that the impact on housing has a domino effect and when affordable housing is lost in one community, people have to move somewhere and so other communities are further impacted as well. So a lot of the work really does involve housing, the pandemic certainly complicated that to a degree but the loss of affordable housing in each of these communities has been really a challenge for families who were still continuing to try to live and work and go to school in this community. So we’re working a lot with the title clearing issues, helping renters stay at housing, helping them deal with some of those renter issues as well. Some of the other issues that come up later on, many people get FEMA assistance and as early days to help them have a place to live and to pay for the things that they’ve lost and perhaps they find out later that the FEMA didn’t think they should have gotten that assistance or they may be told that they didn’t spend it the way they’re supposed to and often times we have people come in to the office and say FEMA want some of this money back, what do I do and we work through that in a lot of times. It’s just a misunderstanding or clarification. It requires a lot of paperwork and many people don’t keep all that paperwork for all those years so it can be a little complicated to solve these problems but the layers continue in education as one student has been relocated from a school and making sure that they are continuing their education in a way that’s still supporting their learning I think in Hurricane Idalia, I think schools are still closed and some of those impacted counties from last week.
So their recovery is bung but really just to go back to those partners, it is critical to work with the long-term recovery committees that we have in here Florida, the schools, the food pantries, all of these organizations you’re still engaged. We have worked really to build relationships within the emergency management community and to sustain those we’re now an invited member of the Mass Care cause that happen in preparation for and after every disaster and people know that legal services is part of that conversation and even as people changed of those organizations that’s part of their vocabulary and so we’re continuing to build those conversations. We’ve held conferences and trainings and other things to make sure we’re building on that information sharing that we need from them and we hope that they need from us as well.
Lynn Jennings: So we’ve granted the service on several critical issues related to emergency management cycle and disaster but as we wrapped up, what is the one thing you would like the listeners to take away from today’s discussion, Shrusti?
Shrusti Khotari: So today’s discussion has been very deep on preparedness recovering all the different aspects of disaster. I do want people to take in their account that in 2023, we have had 44 major disaster declarations across the nation, 16 of which have had individuals assistance approved which means that FEMA will go ahead and provide and accept applications from individuals for assistance. Since September is National Preparedness Month, I urge everybody to take control of their disaster preparedness plans and get prepared and learn about their resources that are available. The Legal Services Corporation has been very fortunate in the last many years actually to continue receiving disaster funding from Congress and all of our legal aid organizations across the nation are doing fantastic work, learn about who is in your region, get to know their information and learn the educational information that they provide you.
Take control of the actual process that you start out with before the disaster hits, get your title clear if you haven’t already and look at the other resources that are available out there as well. I’m just kind of repeating myself a little bit but the Legal Services Corporation along with many other partner agencies has a lot of the Legal Disaster Resource Center which is a one-stop shop website. The websites address is ladrc.org and has all the disaster related resources for not only disaster survivors but also legal aid professionals, pro bono volunteers and survivors as well. I also urge you to get to know your organization into region and again, I think the final topic of this discussion is be prepared as much as you can in light of Natural Preparedness Month.
Lynn Jennings: Great. Thank you, Leslie.
Leslie Powell-Boudreaux: So I’m going to still a little bit from Mark here that preparedness is 365 days a year. And what that really means is that one, none of us can predict when a disaster might happen. We have had disasters in Florida outside of hurricane season and making sure that you’re prepared for whatever that might be but also just being aware of the changes that are happening in your community from a legal perspective if you do move. If you do get new insurance. Be familiar with these documents. Don’t take for granted that it’s just part of your paperwork and you’ll figure it out when you need it. Understand what each of these items in those documents mean and make sure that you’re prepared so that when you are facing a disaster you can focus on the people and the protection of the people and keeping people safe and know that you’re ready when a disaster comes after the disaster with whatever legal issues might strike.
Lynn Jennings: All right Mark. You’re the long-term expert in this. You can take us home.
Mark Sloan: Oh, I appreciate the opportunity to participate today. We’ve all witnessed all the wildfires that happened in Hawaii. We’re familiar with the flooding that can occur that we’ve seen in California, earthquakes in California, tropical storms that have impacted Florida or the Gulf Coast. In a few months, we’re all going to be dealing with winter weather so no matter where you lived disasters can happen and it’s now the time to prepare. If you listen to this podcast and you’re a part of the legal aid system and you’re not connected with emergency management at the local level, reach out. They want to partner with you and you can be a resource prior to the disaster, during the disaster and after. Not only for the residents but as a resource to local government to connect you to where the impacts have occurred.
Lynn Jennings: Thank you so much and before we conclude, I do want to highlight that if you want more information on preparedness, please go to ready.gov, spin around for a long time. It started in the early 2000 since so you have been there. That is where you can go to get a lot of information to be prepared and LSC is launching another website this called the Heartland Flood and Wildfire website. That is focused on ten states in the Midwest to help residents there understand their risk of flooding and wildfires that as well as information on how to mitigate those risks. I’d like to thank our participants today and thank you for your working commitment.
Outro: Podcast guest, speakers’ views thoughts and opinions are solely their own and do not necessarily represent the Legal Services Corporation’s views, thoughts or opinions. The information and guidance discussed in this podcast are provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. You should not make decisions based on this podcast content without seeking legal or other professional advice.