Recovering from Disaster: “Helpers” in the Legal Community Respond
By Mary Irvine
On September 14, 2018, Hurricane Florence hit the coast of North Carolina near Wrightsville Beach. When it reached the shore, the Category 1 storm brought winds of 90 miles per hour. Record-breaking storm surge levels were recorded in several coastal communities. Over the next four days, the hurricane lingered and some areas across the state experienced three feet of rain, the wettest tropical cyclone recorded in North Carolina. Catastrophic flooding across North Carolina lasted for several weeks closing major roads and damaging infrastructure, homes, and businesses. A disaster was declared in 31 out of 100 North Carolina counties. Just a few weeks later, a new round of wind, rain, and flooding hit as Tropical Storm Michael passed through North Carolina, impacting western and central North Carolina counties.
Impact of the Hurricane
As the legal community responds, initial assessments about the impact of Hurricane Florence suggest we will be in this recovery for years to come. The social and economic costs of Hurricane Florence are still being assessed. At least 48 deaths were attributed to the storm, including the loss of 37 North Carolinians. According to Moody’s Analytics, the estimated economic cost of the event ranges from $38 to $50 billion as of September 21, including property damage, vehicle loss, and lost output. By these estimates, Hurricane Florence is among the ten most costly hurricanes in United States history.
Arriving at the peak of fall harvest season in North Carolina, the storm brought an estimated $1 billion in crop damages and livestock losses. State and federal officials are still working to determine the extent of the storm’s impact on water quality and to address concerns about other environmental contaminations. Another less quantifiable significant cost is the lost educational time for school children in impacted areas where some schools were closed for several weeks.
Even though the daily updates on the local news have subsided, real problems persist in eastern North Carolina following Hurricane Florence. Common sense tells us that the individuals in need before disaster strikes will continue to be among the most vulnerable during and after the event. Using Census data, the Social Vulnerability Index created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seeks to pinpoint the most vulnerable communities expected to need support, a need only exacerbated by disaster. Variables like socioeconomic status, household composition, disability, minority status, language, housing, and transportation are considered. Twenty-one of the 31 counties where disaster has been declared are identified by the index as the most vulnerable.
With support from NC IOLTA, the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission, in partnership with various legal groups in South Carolina, created a website with story maps to help demonstrate the impact and legal needs following Hurricane Florence. For more information, visit bitly.com/ NClegalaid.
How Legal Aid Helps
Civil legal aid has a critical role in helping communities recover from disasters. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, attorneys and legal advocates guide victims through administrative processes and identify legal issues. Landlord-tenant questions, issues with applying for FEMA assistance and other benefits, referrals to community services, and replacement of lost documents are among the most pressing concerns. Later, as victims rebuild, other civil legal issues arise: appeals of benefit denials, consumer scams, foreclosure prevention, and insurance claims.
To help respond to these issues, NC IOLTA recently approved grants to two collaborative projects that will provide legal services to Hurricane Florence victims:
• Legal Aid of North Carolina, the North Carolina Bar Foundation, and the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center were awarded $161,100 to engage pro bono volunteers to help individuals impacted by Hurricane Florence including advice offered through the Disaster Legal Services Hotline and in-person “know your rights” presentations and brief advice clinics.
• The North Carolina Justice Center and the Financial Protection Law Center received $65,500 to support placement of a bilingual legal services advocate in Wilmington to assist hurricane victims in eastern North Carolina who are immigrants and may not be able to be served by other efforts.
In this moment of crisis in North Carolina, it is heartening to see concern pouring in from outside our state. In the early days after Florence hit, lawyers, law firms, and bar groups across the country began reaching out to offer their support. In response to the need, on October 2, 2018, the North Carolina Supreme Court approved the North Carolina State Bar’s temporary rule amendment allowing lawyers licensed outside of North Carolina to immediately begin providing pro bono legal services to indigent victims of Hurricane Florence. This emergency rule streamlines the process by which out of state lawyers can provide pro bono services through a nonprofit legal services organization. For more information about the rule and a copy of the form to register with the State Bar, visit the State Bar’s website at ncbar.gov.
Look for the Helpers
Fred Rogers, the longtime PBS host who spent more than 30 years teaching young children through his show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, relayed a story from his childhood to ease the minds of his watchers in times of tragedy and disaster. Mr. Rogers said his mother always told him that, despite the hardship that accompanies disaster, we should “look for the helpers” because there are always people helping, people who care and want to give of themselves to lift others and ease their suffering.
In the early days following the hurricane, many “helpers” were on the ground to respond to the disaster: rescue teams, firefighters, first responders, police officers, Red Cross workers, neighbors, line crews working to restore power, volunteers serving hot meals in shelters, collecting and transporting supplies to communities in need, and removing debris from yards. The second wave of support encompasses a broader group, including staff of NC’s legal aid providers and private attorney volunteers who are working to help the most vulnerable individuals and communities recover from Hurricane Florence.
If you have not already, considering joining the legal community’s team of “helpers” today.
Mary Irvine is the executive director of the North Carolina State Bar Plan for Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (NC IOLTA).
Disaster Legal Services Volunteer Opportunities
The North Carolina Bar Association, FEMA, the American Bar Association, and Legal Aid of North Carolina are collaborating to provide immediate pro bono assistance to Hurricane Florence victims through the Disaster Legal Services Hotline. Volunteers are needed to provide brief advice and services and assist with phone intake.
Legal Aid of North Carolina, the North Carolina Bar Foundation, and the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center are also working to staff information and resource tables at disaster recovery centers and host other clinics on the ground with community organizations to answer legal questions.
Visit ncbar.org/florence for more information about volunteer opportunities.
Additional information and resources for volunteers are available at ncprobono.org.