Amid Virus, Disaster Attys Struggle To Reach Survivors

By Cara Bayles | September 20, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

Brittanny Perrigue, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, is no stranger to disaster. The community she serves sits in the floodplain of the river that carves Texas' southern border.

In 2018 and 2019, in what the National Weather Service dubbed "The Great June Floods," torrential rains filled the valley. Residents used boats to navigate at least two feet of standing water in the streets. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave $30 million residents impacted in 2018 and $12 million to survivors of the 2019 disaster.

This July brought more flooding when Hurricane Hanna left 18 inches to four feet of water in the valley. But this time, the storm's winds, which reached 85 miles per hour in some places, added to the damage toppled trees, snapped power lines and roofs torn from buildings.

But Perrigue hasn't connected with nearly as many clients as in years past. In 2018, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid took on 279 disaster-related cases. In 2019, the organization had 208. This year, it only has 60.

That's because every aspect of the response effort has been done from a distance.

Usually after a bad storm, Perrigue sets up a booth at a FEMA disaster recovery center — a one-stop resource fair for survivors, where she can meet new clients and help them with not only federal disaster claims, but benefits, landlord-tenant issues and a host of other problems that might not immediately seem to be within the purview of a lawyer.

But there was no center after Hanna, because FEMA still has not decided whether the July storm merits "individual assistance" money for disaster survivors.

Ordinarily, the agency sends field teams to assess damage in person. This year, it's doing much of that work remotely, using aerial footage. Most of the reporting paperwork has moved online, which might exclude the rural poor who don't always have access to technology, according to Perrigue. That may have slowed the process, she said. FEMA did not respond to comment requests about aid to the Rio Grande Valley after Hanna.

But even if FEMA had set up a disaster recovery center, because of the coronavirus restrictions, it likely would have been a drive-thru where survivors could drop off paperwork, not an auditorium with a plethora of resources. And that's made it hard for legal aid attorneys to connect with clients.

"The numbers have always been higher when we're in person," said Perrigue, who estimates more than half of the disaster cases she took on in 2018 and 2019 came from resource centers. "If someone has a question and they're talking to FEMA or the Small Business Administration in a disaster recovery center, often they'll say, 'You should go talk to the attorneys over there.'"

Perrigue is not the only lawyer dealing with all this. The federal government has already declared 119 noncoronavirus disasters so far this year. The 10-year annual average is 123, and 2020 seems poised to surpass that.

The largest wildfires in the West are still uncontained. Five more storm systems were churning in the Atlantic basin as of Sunday evening. There are still about two months left in hurricane season, and there have already been so many storms since June, meteorologists expect to exhaust the alphabetical list of hurricane names. Soon they'll start using the Greek alphabet.

Click to view interactive version

Linda Anderson Stanley, who for two years has led 10 Disaster Legal Services volunteers for the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division, says her team is experiencing "disaster fatigue."

"It just seems like they keep on coming," she said. "It's not like it's just hurricanes, and then it's just wildfires, then it's just flooding in the Midwest. No, it's all happening at the same time. Then you're throwing COVID into the mix, and it's just throwing everything off."

Usually, in the aftermath of a disaster, attorneys across the country offer their services to survivors, as they did in the aftermath of 2017's Hurricane Harvey. But this year, the glut of natural disasters, combined with the strain the pandemic is putting on legal aid, means "pro bono attorneys are needed in their own areas," Stanley said, because "everyone is in dire need of legal assistance around the entire country."

FEMA may also be triaging its response efforts, according to Tiela Chalmers, who heads the Alameda County Bar Association and Legal Access Alameda, and is coordinating the legal response to the wildfires in Northern California.

"Climate change is giving us so many more disasters," she said. "It used to be that FEMA would respond to just a few disasters each year. Now it's overwhelming. So I do understand the need to conserve resources."

A FEMA spokesperson said in an email that the agency has provided "a historic level of assistance" in response to the coronavirus.

"FEMA continues to coordinate the whole-of-government response to COVID-19 without compromising support for the ongoing wildfires and hurricanes," the spokesperson said. "FEMA's ability to support disaster responses throughout the nation remains robust."

When the federal government declares a disaster merits individual assistance, FEMA can request that the American Bar Association establish a legal aid hotline through the Disaster Legal Services program.

But without disaster recovery centers, attorneys say they're having trouble finding their clients.

Stanley said the Louisiana hotline hasn't had many calls come in, possibly because 12,000 people who evacuated during Hurricane Laura last month have yet to return home. The hotline for California wildfire survivors has been operating for two weeks, and has received only 20 calls, she said.

"This year, outreach is difficult," she said. "They're not reaching as many people as they normally would when we're out in the public. The word is not necessarily getting out to disaster survivors."

Ordinarily after a storm, as soon as the all clear is sounded, Greg Landry, executive director of the Acadiana Legal Service Corp., would send lawyers and paralegals to mass shelters where displaced survivors stay, or to FEMA disaster centers.

But that's not what happened after Hurricane Laura caused an estimated $10 billion in property damage and 72 deaths on the Gulf Coast.

"What the disaster recovery centers look like right now is the sites you see on TV where they're doing drive-thru COVID testing," he said. "You drive up to the site, don't get out of your car, a FEMA worker comes up to you and helps you with that FEMA application or collects your papers, and that's it. You drive off. There is no booth we can set up and sit down across the table with someone, look at their documents, and help them with those issues."

Those issues include a variety of practice areas, from housing law, to contractor fraud to wage-and-hour disputes over the last paycheck from a shuttered business.

Lawyers can also help people who have lost their identification or benefits cards in a fire or flood, and help them apply for special public benefits that kick in, like disaster unemployment and disaster food stamps. These crises also unveil long-standing legal problems — like the deed to a home still being under the name of a dead relative.

Much of this work might not seem on its face like something you'd ask a lawyer to help with, Chalmers said, and that makes it difficult to connect with clients.

"If the landlord sues them, and gives them legal papers to come to court, they think, 'Yes, I need a lawyer.' But if the landlord writes a letter saying, 'I want you to get all your stuff out by tomorrow,' or 'I'm raising rent by 50%,' they don't necessarily think that's a legal problem," she said.

That lack of understanding worsens the justice gap, according to Rebecca Sandefur, a sociology professor at Arizona State University.

"Research shows clearly that most people don't recognize the legal aspects of their civil justice problems, which is why outreach activities that focus on law — for example, 'Free legal services here!' — are much less effective than those that focus on people's problems as people actually understand them,'" she said.

That's why legal aid organizations are trying to get the word out about all that they do.

In Louisiana, Landry gave his counterpart at the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services pamphlets to distribute to survivors from his area who have been evacuated to New Orleans hotels, about 130 miles east of their homes.

Lone Star Legal Aid has launched a disaster recovery app for other social service providers, who they can use the technology to identify legal issues and know when to refer their low-income clients to attorneys.

California's Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative is posting educational animated videos on Facebook and Twitter, and plans to use TikTok to spread the word.

"We haven't made a TikTok video yet, but my personal thinking is it has to be catchy enough to make someone want to watch it," Chalmers said. "If it's me looking earnestly at the camera and saying, 'If you have any of these problems, a lawyer can help you,' I think people are going to be like, 'Pass.'"

Landry would like to get the word out to attorneys, too. He expects his organization will be inundated with clients as evacuees return home, and the years of legal work can trail the path of a hurricane.

"The biggest limitation is the amount of staff that we have and can hire in a short period of time. It's not easy to say, 'Hi, I need five lawyers, and I need them in this remote area, and we're ready to hire them tomorrow.'"

That's especially true because some of the local attorneys who typically help with this work are themselves survivors.

The windows of Acadiana Legal Service Corp.'s Lake Charles office were blown out, and Landry still hadn't been able to get into the building to assess the damage as of last week.

In California, Chalmers just learned that five staff for a small legal services provider in Santa Cruz lost their homes.

"It's challenging," she said. "We do the work we do because we love it. And we never pay well, so we know they don't have a lot of cushion."

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

Correction: A previous version of this story attributed the number of disaster-related cases to Perrigue, and not her organization as a whole. The error has been corrected.

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