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On September 14, 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall in the Carolinas. The storm brought winds over 90 miles per hour and over three feet of rain in some locations. With $44 billion in estimated damages and lost output, Florence is one of the ten costliest hurricanes in United States history. Disasters leave in their wake myriad civil legal issues that, if not addressed early on, can lead to even more costly problems in the long run, particularly for the more than 639,093 residents eligible for civil legal aid in the 34 North Carolina counties designated as disaster areas due to Florence. Lawyers are uniquely equipped to resolve many of these disaster-related problems, returning survivors to productivity and preventing future reliance on the state and federal government.

The North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC), a program of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, was launched to assist lawyers in fulfilling their professional responsibility to provide pro bono legal services. The PBRC partners with legal aid, local bars, law schools, community groups, and other stakeholders to connect attorney volunteers to pro bono opportunities that address unmet legal needs like those caused by Hurricane Florence.

In anticipation of the damage Hurricane Florence would cause, PBRC Director Sylvia Novinsky connected with the North Carolina Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division (YLD), the North Carolina Bar Foundation, and Legal Aid of North Carolina to discuss how pro bono attorneys might provide needed legal assistance on the ground in the affected areas. Given the urgent need for this legal assistance, NC IOLTA Executive Director Mary Irvine and the IOLTA Board of Trustees were able to offer a special grant cycle dedicated to providing legal assistance to hurricane survivors. The PBRC sought and received funding from IOLTA, Ellis & Winters, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, and Troutman Sanders for a staff attorney to lead the pro bono efforts surrounding hurricane legal assistance. Katherine Asaro was hired in October to serve as the staff attorney in charge of these efforts.

One of Katherine’s first priorities became providing legal information to hurricane survivors at FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs). Some of the services provided at DRCs included:

  • information about FEMA or other disaster assistance programs,
  • guidance regarding disaster recovery assistance and programs for survivors,
  • clarification of any written correspondence received from FEMA,
  • housing assistance and rental resource information,
  • answers to questions, resolution to problems, and referrals to agencies that may provide further assistance,
  • status of applications being processed by FEMA,
  • Small Business Administration (SBA) program information regarding assistance, and
  • legal assistance.

The PBRC, along with Legal Aid of NC and the NC Bar Association’s YLD, organized attorneys to staff tables at DRCs. The PBRC and its volunteers staffed the New Bern DRC on Fridays in two shifts—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—with attorneys signing up to volunteer for three hours. The DRC in New Bern remained open until late-December 2019, and the PBRC recruited and oversaw pro bono attorneys there until the last day it was open. In addition, pro bono attorneys staffed the Fayetteville DRC on Wednesdays from mid-November until it closed in December. Over the course of the PBRC DRC work, 35 attorneys volunteered, helping 49 survivors with brief advice and counsel on a variety of issues related to Hurricane Florence. An issue that consistently emerged from these client conversations was the need for help with appealing FEMA decisions. As a result, the PBRC took the next step of organizing on-site FEMA Appeal and Reconsideration Clinics in partnership with Legal Aid of North Carolina and the North Carolina Bar Foundation.

In December, planning for this next phase began. After consulting with Legal Aid and capitalizing on PBRC’s experience in New Bern and an understanding of the community, the PBRC scheduled the first clinic for January 12 in New Bern. As a preliminary step, the PBRC approached Michael Morgan, commission member and associate justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina—a New Bern native—for advice on where to hold the first clinic. Justice Morgan had many ideas for potential locations, but his suggestion to reach out to the local community college proved to be a stroke of genius. The first clinic was held at Craven Community College and the subsequent clinics were all also held at local community college campuses—Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, Carteret Community College in Morehead City, and Lenoir Community College’s Jones County Center in Trenton. Partnering with a community college fulfilled many of the needs of each legal clinic perfectly—excellent facilities, technologically advanced capabilities, parking, and an air of legitimacy for the clinic participants. The backing of their local community college—a place the public knows and trusts—was a great strength to the success of the clinics.

With the location in place, preparation began for the New Bern clinic itself. Attorneys, law students, and paralegals were recruited to volunteer at the clinic. Attorney volunteers ranged from current working attorneys to retired attorneys, and they came from all over North Carolina to the eastern part of the state to help those impacted by Florence. In addition, paralegals were absolutely instrumental to the success of the clinics. Rachel Royal, pro bono chair of the NC Bar Association’s Paralegal Division, recruited paralegals for each clinic. They conducted check in and check out, and did all onsite intakes for walk-in clients. Volunteers were supported by Legal Aid of North Carolina’s and New York Legal Assistance Group’s training materials, developed during a prior emergency’s FEMA appeals process.

Similarly, Hurricane Florence survivors were invited to sign up for free appointments for legal advice and counsel. In addition to contacting local legislators and news outlets with information about the clinic, the PBRC targeted organizations that would have large networks of people affected by the storm: the largest employers in Craven County, social service agencies, and places of worship. After communicating with these various local organizations, the first clinic was full with a long waitlist. Nevertheless, as was the case at each of the four clinics, pro bono attorney, paralegal, and law student volunteers ensured no client was ever turned away.

The planning phase for the New Bern clinic offered a chance to create an effective model that would be replicated in the subsequent clinics. The New Bern event began with introductory remarks by Justice Morgan. After that, Lesley Albritton, head of Legal Aid of NC’s disaster relief efforts, presented on FEMA policy and procedure. This presentation was repeated in the afternoon at each clinic. Lesley’s information sessions were open to the public, and attendance was required prior to an attorney meeting. After the session, clients went to a waiting room until they were called for their attorney meeting. Lesley also served as the subject matter expert for the attorneys as they met with survivors. Legal Aid attorneys Richard Klein and Brad Piland also helped as subject matter experts.

The New Bern clinic was a resounding success. Nineteen attorneys, three law students, and two paralegals met with 49 survivors. The information sessions were held in a large room in the school’s student center, and the attorney meetings were held in several computer labs across campus. Of course, the event was not without its “bumps.” Originally, FEMA Appeals were to be drafted using an online portal that crashed upon submission of the client’s matter. But everyone persevered. The attorneys pivoted and reentered the clients’ information in an appeal template in Microsoft Word and drafted the appeals that way. Despite the initial lost time and effort, at the end of the day the volunteers and survivors left happy and hopeful. Ben Williams, an attorney volunteer,  reflected on the clinic with this: “The Pro Bono Resource Center’s Appeal Clinic was an inspiring event. It was great to see so many advocates from around the state come together and dedicate a day to helping fellow Tar Heels who had their lives upended by Florence. I left the event amazed by the persistence and optimism of the people we helped.”

After New Bern, the second clinic was held on February 9 in Wilmington. Twenty-two attorneys, seven paralegals, and six law students served 57 survivors over the course of the day-long event. Wilmington was the busiest clinic in terms of volume of clients served. The third clinic was held on February 23 in Morehead City. This clinic featured introductory remarks by North Carolina State Senator Norman Sanderson, who represents Carteret County. At the Morehead City clinic, a large group of law students from UNC and several from Duke made it possible for each attorney to have a law student help them during the clinic. Fifteen attorney/law student pairs served 42 clients in Morehead City. Two more law students sat with survivors and interviewed them about their experiences since Hurricane Florence made landfall. In addition, nine paralegals ran the administrative end of the second event.

At the first clinic in New Bern, a survivor spoke to the PBRC about hosting a clinic in her community, Trenton, North Carolina. Jones County, where Trenton is located, was hit especially hard by Hurricane Florence—many buildings, including the court house and public schools, are still closed due to flood and storm damage. The PBRC was able to hold its fourth and final clinic in Trenton on March 6. The Trenton clinic was different than the first three in that it was held on a weeknight with a single information session. The Trenton clinic was the busiest in terms of walk-ins and clients seen by attorneys. In Trenton, nine attorneys saw 18 clients, and Legal Aid completed intake for 20 survivors. In addition, five paralegals ran check-in, check-out, and walk-in intake.

The PBRC is honored to have been able to facilitate these pro bono volunteer experiences and is grateful to NC IOLTA for funding these needed disaster relief efforts and to partners for their support. After each clinic, attorneys submitted evaluations to the PBRC regarding training and clinic experiences. Most told the PBRC that they were grateful to be able to help North Carolinians in need in a way that capitalized on their skills—their legal skills. One attorney said, “I volunteered because it was a great way to effectuate my good intentions. After the storm, I spent days hauling soaked drywall and ductwork, too. Both were gratifying, but volunteering for pro bono clinics put my more unique skill set to use. There is nothing like the satisfaction of feeling like you provided much needed assistance. The camaraderie with the other volunteer legal staff and the good people from NC Pro Bono was a lovely extra.”

The PBRC is also grateful to the survivors who came to the clinics for help. Clients shared deeply personal experiences of loss and resiliency. Many cried when describing what happened to them and what Hurricanes Florence and Michael have left behind. Many also left empowered with legal information and assistance. Volunteer attorneys played a significant role in helping to explain a process that can be confusing and intimidating. When asked about their experience overall, one client gave this feedback about the clinic: The best part was “the compassion everyone showed for the folks affected by the hurricane. They genuinely wanted to help.” When asked about the best part of the clinic, another survivor wrote, “[H]aving a compassionate, sympathetic, and knowledgeable person to help us through this process. We had more help from our volunteer professional than we did from [anyone so far].” 

Katherine Asaro is the staff attorney for the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center.