What’s the first thing you think of when you hear: hurricane, typhoon, tsunami, earthquake, wildfire, or nor’easter? They’re all disasters. Your next thoughts would probably go towards the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross, and all the things you could possibly do to help in a time of need.
Do you know what you don’t think of?
You don’t think of the legal ramifications that accompany any disaster. You don’t think, “What happens if FEMA denies someone assistance?” or “What about a renter’s lease and security deposit if the rental unit is destroyed?” It’s okay. I didn’t think much of it either.
In fact, like you, I was today years old when I learned that the ABA has a Disaster Legal Services Program.
This year, the ABA’s 10th annual Pro Bono Week focuses on disaster resiliency. In an effort to bring more awareness to the Disaster Legal Services program, I had the chance to talk with Andrew VanSingel, a tax attorney, who volunteers his time as a Special Advisor to the Disaster Legal Services (DLS) team. Prior to his time as Special Advisor, Mr. VanSingel served as the program’s coordinator.
He was gracious enough to answer some questions about the program.
Q: What made you want to get into disaster relief? How did you get involved?
AVS: I graduated law school in 2010, and shortly after started working for Prairie State Legal Services, a legal aid agency, outside of Chicago managing a Low-Income Tax Clinic. I worked with other legal aid lawyers as tax law touches many areas of civil legal service– family law, housing, etc. I had a chance encounter with David Nguyen at a Young Lawyers Division (YLD) meeting in Maryland. At the time, he was running the DLS program and thought I would be a good successor, given my background in civil legal services. Two years later, I was appointed to the position by then YLD chair Lacy Durham, who thought Disaster Legal Services would be a good fit for me with my public interest mindset. It was something I was interested in and I was appointed. On Day 1, we had a disaster declaration in Saipan in the Northern Pacific. A few months ago, I aged out of the YLD, but I still maintain a Special Advisor role within the program.
I find the work appealing because it is so closely related to poverty law, just with a disaster overlaid on top of it. It requires a significant amount of coordination to implement and carry out to help people who cannot afford an attorney and assist during and after a disaster.
Q: How do you prepare for impending disasters, such as Hurricanes Florence and Michael?
AVS: There’s no such thing as a perfect plan. No matter how good the plan is, or how well it was implemented in the past, there is always a way to improve.
A few years ago, we saw some bar associations had a disaster plan, but they were almost too comprehensive and detailed. This made it difficult to implement DLS if you had to go through a 90-page plan. So, we created a two-page disaster template that gave District Representatives a concise plan of action, and directions on how to implement DLS. The two-page template contains contact info and information as to “who does what” when DLS is implemented. It’s not perfect, but it will get you about 90 percent through the situation.
We also communicate these plans to both legal and non-legal organizations and educate them on the DLS program before a disaster strikes. This was a tremendous advancement to the program as many organizations were unaware the ABA has a Disaster Legal Services program and unaware as to how that program works. In large disasters, FEMA typically requests us to implement DLS within a few days of a disaster declaration. This was the case for Hurricanes Florence and Michael; however, for smaller incidents, it may take several weeks for FEMA to formally request we become involved. This helps us to avoid the awkward situation of getting with a disaster a month after that incident, and the local partners think that we are not being responsive or poorly organized.
Q: What are the most common legal problems the Disaster Legal Services program assists with?
AVS: We see a lot of issues related to housing, whether it is a personal residence that the individual owns, or if it is a place that they rent. With renters, we see a lot of issues with landlords. For example, a landlord may keep the security deposit for a home that was destroyed, or they may demand rent for the unit even though it suffered damage due to the disaster. We also see landlords evicting renters, so they can re-rent the units at a premium due to the scarce supply of habitable rental units.
With homeowners, FEMA requires that they prove they were the lawful owner of the home and that they occupied that home during the disaster. But, not everyone keeps the title of their home up-to-date, especially when the property is passed down generationally. This is especially seen in lower income communities where they may not be able to afford an attorney to correctly transfer title from one owner to another. In Puerto Rico and Louisiana, the titling laws are modeled on the Spanish Civil Code or French Civil Code, respectively, and the process for clearing heirship may be arcane, confusing, and costly. Basically, it’s almost impossible without the help of an advocate.
Another issue that will arise is the public’s idea of the federal government’s role when it comes to disasters. Many think that FEMA’s role is to come into a disaster, take over operations, and put people’s lives back together, to the way it was before the disaster struck. Reality is far from that view. All disasters begin, and end, as local matters and FEMA is there to help local government scale up their response. FEMA helps recover, but not restore. The maximum disaster grant awarded is only $34,000, and the average grant per individual is $5,000. However, many disaster survivors will have to take out a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration (a portion of their portfolio is non-business disaster loans). Our program works in coordination with FEMA pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding; however, a majority of the legal work is appealing determinations made by FEMA.
The little problems like food, water and shelter have easy answers. Legal issues linger long after the TV crews and disaster relief leave the site. They are long-lasting and leave and indelible mark on the lives of those affected, and the poorest of the poor never fully recover. Anecdotally, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services still have cases originating from Hurricane Katrina, and that was 13 years ago. Disasters have deep and long-lasting impacts on those who are vulnerable.
Q: What story, or stories, stick with you the most from your work with the program?
AVS: The long-lasting impact of this program on my life is the resiliency of the human spirit, and our collective desire to help one another. This was proven to me time after time during my time with the program. For example, I was travelling to Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and in my haste, realized I had never figured out where I was going to stay. As the plane was taking off (don’t tell the FAA that I didn’t have my phone on airplane mode), I fired off an email asking my local contacts for leads on a place to stay. By the time I landed, I had secured a place to stay with the parents of a legal aid attorney. While on that same trip, I posted on Facebook asking friends to consider donating $5-$10 so I could by supplies for a nearby shelter in Port Arthur. We raised $1,300 in less than 24-hours, and I connected with Ray Panneton – a YLD leader in Houston – and made a four-cart Costco run. We loaded a 12-passenger van with supplies, and Ray’s friends, to make our way to Port Arthur where we spent the day helping the locals in any way we could. Before heading back to Houston, we shared a prayer with the local recovery workers.
DLS is not just implemented in the continental United States. In April, I was able to go to American Samoa. The legal community there is very small, so with the help of two DLS members – Linda Anderson and Amanda Brown – we set up a remote appeals clinic and resourced attorneys all over the U.S. to help with FEMA appeals. I’ll never forget walking off the jumbo jet and stepping onto the runway, with no cell phone service, asking myself, “What did I just get myself into?” When I got to American Samoa Legal Aid, the next day, they treated me like family. After a few days, I didn’t want to leave.
Q: How can students get involved?
AVS: There’s a role for everyone who wants to help. Law students are tricky because they’re not yet licensed to practice. Some schools offer disaster relief clinics, but if there’s truly a desire to do [disaster relief], there’s not a clear path and it requires a lot of dedication.
However, the first thing a law student can do is to connect with your local legal aid agency and garner experience through them. As stated earlier, disaster law is closely related to the issues that a civil legal services agency would handle, so get the experience on those issues now. Keep that commitment to helping once you are licensed.
Q: What advice can you offer law students who are interested?
AVS: Ghosting isn’t acceptable in the dating world. It’s especially not acceptable when volunteering! If you raise your hand to volunteer – see it through. Less than 15 percent of the 2,500-people signed up to volunteer after Hurricane Harvey took a case.
Your reputation is so important in this profession. Be someone that is going to be viewed as reliable. If this is the type of work that you are passionate about, dive into it head first. You can make a big splash in the profession no matter what you’re doing.
Speaking with Mr. VanSingel was an enlightening experience and an eye opening one at that. If poverty law is your calling in this profession, this is just another way to get involved.
So, as we go forward with Pro Bono Week, keep this opportunity in mind when you are finished with law school! Or even now if you’re a lawyer reading this. The Disaster Legal Services Team is 100 percent volunteer staffed and is a great way to give back. Remember, not all disasters take the form of hurricanes or tornados, but all disasters have a need for legal assistance.