Years after Hurricane Harvey slammed parts of Houston with more than 50 inches of rain in 2017, causing devastating flooding and more than 80 deaths, many Texans still have not fully recovered. Officials launched the Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program to help those affected repair and rebuilt their houses, but many are still waiting for the promised aid to appear. By August 2020, the program, then run by the city of Houston, had finished rebuilding fewer than 70 homes. In the summer of 2021, a state agency took over, but it was still plagued with issues, including complaints that the program downsized people’s homes from what they were living in pre-Harvey.
One resident, Joe (who asked to go by a pseudonym because of how precarious his housing situation still is), is one of them. When Hurricane Harvey hit, water was flowing through his one-story house “like a river;” when the rain stopped, mold bloomed on his walls and ceiling. Initially, the state program said it would rebuild Joe a two-bedroom house, though he originally had three bedrooms. The program was never meant to exactly replicate homes, officials had told the Houston Chronicle, but to fill needs not met by insurance and, as one state representative put it, to “keep you one step from being homeless.” But Joe, who is blind and has kidney problems, needs a live-in nurse. His son also lives with him, and did so at the time Harvey hit. (Since the pandemic began, his other son has also moved in with him after losing his job.) Two bedrooms were not enough to meet his needs.
Luckily, Joe was not navigating the slow and bureaucratic process alone. When the program representatives told him he would only be getting two bedrooms, Joe told them they needed to speak to his disability attorney. A few months after Harvey, he had been connected with Stephanie Duke, a fellow with Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit that gets early-career lawyers into public service work, and she guided Joe through both the FEMA and rebuild processes. “If I would not have had Stephanie, they would not have given me a three-bedroom house,” Joe says. “Stephanie helped me a whole great deal.”
Joe is just one of millions across the country who have had to navigate disaster aid. In the summer of 2021 alone, nearly 1 in 3 Americans experienced a weather disaster, from fires and tornadoes to floods. Low-income Americans have an especially difficult time getting legal help that can make it easier to navigate the complex streams of potential aid. “There is currently a nationwide shortage of lawyers to help low-income individuals and families prepare for, and recover from, the legal effects of disasters,” says Linda Anderson Stanley, senior program manager of Equal Justice Works’ Disaster Resilience Program.
A National Center for Access to Justice report estimates that there is one legal aid attorney for every 10,000 people living at or below the poverty line—and these are the lawyers available to help with everything from evictions to custody cases and disasters. As climate change worsens, so will those weather-related disasters, which already disproportionally affect marginalized communities, driving up that need for legal assistance even more. “We need to bring more public interest lawyers to these disaster-prone areas,” Anderson Stanley says. “We need to deepen our investments and facilitate sustained support for public interest law.”
After a disaster, you might initially think of food, water, and shelter as the main things someone needs to access. But there’s also reams of paperwork to deal with: applying for FEMA assistance, insurance-claim disputes, making sure you’re protected from an “unscrupulous contractor,” and fighting unlawful evictions. There’s also family law issues (domestic violence, for example, soars after disasters), and immigration law issues. “The legal needs that emerge after a disaster are complex and difficult to navigate without a lawyer,” she says. “But for so many people, effective legal assistance is really out of reach.”
At Equal Justice Works, Anderson Stanley is working to close this gap, mobilizing lawyers to provide free legal aid in disaster-prone areas, both before and after the event occurs. In 2017, as a response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the nonprofit established its Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, which sent 23 public interest lawyers to communities affected by hurricanes in Texas and Florida. After that two-year program, she says, the fellows contributed more than $3.25 million in combined economic benefits, in the form of FEMA assistance, housing stability, employment wage protection, and more.
In the years since, Equal Justice Works was able to build its Disaster Resilience Program, which has expanded from Texas and Florida into California, and plans to place attorneys in New Mexico and Louisiana, as well. (The Corps members received training specific to disaster recovery, and program fellows get disaster law training and mentorships, as well.)
Currently there are 8 attorneys in the program, though they’re soon bringing in 12 more. To reach people in need, they set up “know your rights” clinics in disaster areas, and work with community groups to create a referral network. (Joe found his lawyer through a personal referral.) It’s a job made even more difficult by the compounding disasters of the last few years; after the winter storm in Texas, for example, recovery has been made even more complicated by the fact that most things are still remote because of COVID-19.
Getting more disaster-relief lawyers, and making that legal aid available to anyone, is an issue with extremely high stakes. “People are becoming homeless. People don’t understand that they even have a legal right, and don’t know what their resources are, or how to recover. Folks might get a denial from FEMA or some other benefit and think, ‘OK, that’s the end of the road for me,’ and not know an appeal is possible,” Anderson Stanley says. “Lawyers can really help level that playing field, and we need to do what we can now to ensure that there are enough attorneys out there.”