More than a year has passed since Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, devastating the tri-state area. Homeowners and small businesses are still working to rebuild and recover. Many face frustrating battles with insurance companies and the government, fighting to receive adequate insurance payments, or struggling to recover desperately needed funds from fraudulent contractors.
Since the storm, Pro Bono Net has supported legal recovery efforts, mobilizing the New York legal community to serve those in need.
Working with legal aid organizations, law firms, pro bono attorneys, advocate groups, government agencies, and others, we developed and assembled critical resources. We partnered with the New York Legal Assistance Group, City Bar, and Legal Services NYC to host webinars on disaster-related legal issues, FEMA, and legal canvassing. Weekly emails kept probono.net/ny members up to date with new opportunities.
In addition, we created a clearinghouse to centralize Sandy relief trainings, resources, and pro bono opportunities for lawyers throughout New York State and a custom page to house all of Pro Bono Net’s disaster related library resources. Serving as an organizational leader, we helped address the myriad legal issues resulting from the storm.
Together with the City Bar Justice Center and Legal Services NYC, we convene monthly calls to share information, identify problems, and find opportunities for collaboration. A highly active listserv allows the discussion to continue between calls.
With support from the New York Community Trust, we created www.femaappeals.org to enable those without access to an attorney to create well-crafted appeals to FEMA denials.
Adam Strochak, a partner in the D.C. office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, assisted with the site’s development and contributed the FAQ’s. Additionally, Adam and his team provided Pro Bono Net with key feedback during the pilot phase. Adam was involved in Weil’s efforts during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, giving him extensive FEMA experience.
When asked what he thought the technology would do for recovery efforts, Adam said, “the appeals process is often not complex, and having an online tool available will be a tremendous assistance. You will always have certain cases that are best addressed by an attorney but the interactive technology will help many people.”
The site was developed with the help of legal service organizations and private attorneys who specialize in FEMA appeals including the City Bar Justice Center; The Legal Aid Society; Legal Services NYC; Legal Services NYC – Brooklyn Programs; Manhattan Legal Services; Volunteers of Legal Services; the Urban Justice Center; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.
Said Mark O'Brien, Pro Bono Net Executive Director, “Looking at the number of people who needed to complete appeals, we saw that it was simply larger in scope than the legal services community could handle. FEMAAppeals.org is a way for technology to help address a pressing legal need hitting large swaths of the population. I am very pleased that we can help narrow the justice gap for storm victims and have a lasting impact on how the legal services community responds to disasters.” Mark was interviewed by News1 about the importance of the FEMAAppeals.org site.
Our work provides legal services organizations in disaster stricken areas outside New York with a road map to follow. Our materials were a tremendous help to advocates in Oklahoma as they responded to a series of severe storms in May and June of this year. In October, Pro Bono Net partnered with The City Bar Justice Center and The Legal Aid Society to host a Disaster Lawyering Conference to discuss Sandy relief efforts, ongoing challenges, and best practices for future disaster preparation and relief.
Leading up to the Disaster Lawyering Conference, Pro Bono Net presented a series of interviews on our blog, ConnectingJusticeCommunities.com, reflecting on legal help provided to victims following the storm.
Superstorm Sandy is just one example of how Pro Bono Net’s expertise can improve the lives of those in need. In 2014, we’ll work to standardize our online forms and, with the help of an AmeriCorps VISTA through the Montana Legal Services Association, we will overhaul our disaster legal aid site and expand our disaster relief resources. This will provide people who need help after a disaster with the tools and resources they need.