Life Cycle of Disaster Recovery-A Legal Perspective
Disasters place a heavy financial, physical, and emotional burden on many individuals in our communities who are already struggling. The immediate aftermath of a disaster generally brings out the best in our fellow Texans as folks are quick to spring into action and lend a hand to recovery efforts. Though the legal needs of disaster survivors can manifest themselves immediately following an event, those needs last for many years to come as disaster survivors attempt to recover, prepare, and mitigate damages in anticipation of the next disaster.
A disaster survivor’s evolving legal needs exist in their own lifecycle. The short-term legal needs take place 1 to 6 weeks after the event. The mid-term legal needs overlap and can extend up to 6 months post disaster. Long-term disaster recovery can begin 6 months after the event and continue for years. Throughout the disaster recovery lifecycle, there are ample opportunities for attorneys with a range of skill sets and expertise to assist survivors with addressing their critical legal needs.
Recovery in Short Term
The immediate, short term legal needs of disaster survivors can include: assistance with landlord-tenant issues, assistance with insurance claims and denials, assistance applying with FEMA and/or the SBA, assistance applying with private, governmental, and nonprofit organizations providing repair and rebuild help, assistance accessing public benefits, assistance replacing important documents, and assistance with various issues related to (un)employment. Attorneys versed in civil, administrative, and federal law can many times help disaster survivors obtain life-changing outcomes as a direct result of the attorney’s involvement.
Recovery in Mid-Term
The mid-term legal needs of a disaster survivor can include: assistance with the appeal of administrative denials related to federal programs, defending against ongoing landlord-tenant issues (eviction, unsafe conditions, return of security deposits), assisting with title-clearing related to real property and manufactured housing, and assisting with foreclosure prevention, contractor fraud, identity theft, unemployment, immigration, and family law matters. Though disaster survivors may be able to do many of these things pro se, those who receive legal assistance in the form of advice or representation by attorneys who practice in these areas of the law obtain much more favorable outcomes and may recovery more quickly than those who do not.
Long Term Recovery
The legal needs of disaster survivors can last for years following a disaster. For example, there are disaster attorneys still helping Hurricane Harvey (2017) survivors obtain housing and qualify for long-term recovery programs. Long term legal needs of disaster survivors can include: defending against foreclosure, debt collection, and bankruptcy issues, providing advice on various disaster-related tax matters, representing clients with complex title-clearing cases, assisting with adverse possession claims, advising or representing clients on probate matters, and assisting with navigating FEMA recoupment actions. For long-term recovery matters such as those listed above, having an attorney involved is critical to recovery. Even attorneys without experience in one or more of these fields can access training and mentoring opportunities to ensure our communities are more resilient and prepared for the next disaster.
Dina Hardwick, Staff Attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid
Ana Laurel, Staff Attorney / EJW Disaster Relief Legal Fellow, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid