In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina touched down in Alabama and other Gulf Coast states, leaving a wake of destruction. As the storm neared land, the Legal Services Alabama (LSA) team began assembling disaster materials with help from legal aid organizations in Florida, who had developed a similar project.
“We wanted to get the materials posted online as a manual, which we did as fast as we could,” says Janice Franks, Information Services Manager at LSA. “After that, we learned our staff was going to the AlalbamaLegalHelp.org site and printing the manual because they were going down south and staffing areas without Internet service. AlabamaLegalHelp.org really was launched in the wake of Katrina. ”
Today the site has a robust Disaster Legal Services area, as well as resources in other commonly-needed areas such as family law, public benefits and housing. AlabamaLegalHelp.org recently moved on to the new LawHelp template developed by Pro Bono Net, and, Janice says, “I am really excited.” She adds, “I like the look of the new site much better.”
The needs that arise in the wake of a disaster can vary in urgency. “[After Katrina] we took a layered approach to providing assistance, starting with the most immediate, including unemployment and food. The first thing we got out the word about was the food stamp program, since people may need food stamps or may need more assistance in light of a disaster,” says Larry Gardella, LSA Director for Advocacy.
“After a record number of devastating tornadoes in 2011, we got the word out about terminating a lease due to extensive damages,” Larry said. “Once we deal with the critical issues we can move to the next level, getting out information about contacting FEMA and consumer issues such as lost time at work and dealing with collection.”
AlabamaLegalHelp.org has also benefited from a collaborative approach. “Following the oil spill in 2010, we organized the manual into topics that were easy to navigate after seeing how Iowa Legal Aid presented materials [in response to floods that occurred in 2008]. I think it’s interesting that we are able to share resources and ideas,” says Janice.
Larry stresses the importance of readability in materials posted on AlabamaLegalHelp.org. “Alabama Arise [a local nonprofit] provided drawings that made the copy more interesting," he said, for example, in The Alabama Tenants' Handbook [links to pdf]. "All our materials are produced at a 6th or 7th grade reading level so that they are easy for people to follow,” Larry adds.
The site combines ease of use with needed information. PDF “do-it-yourself” legal forms developed with the Alabama State Bar provide critical self-help tools. And an online intake form launched in 2009 helps clients get, as Larry puts it, “a running start.”
Developing the intake forms, Janice says, “was a learning experience.” Her colleague William Guyton, LSA Information Technology Manager, adds, “The first application came through in three hours. There is never, never a day that we go without an online intake since we launched between two and three years ago.”