Reflections on the Role of Lawyers in Disaster Recovery
Ten years ago on August 29th, the worst natural disaster in American history slammed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast, leaving a path of destruction across the state of Mississippi. Forty-seven of Mississippi’s 82 counties were declared disaster areas by the President of the United States. And while elected officials — local, state and federal — and the citizens of this state immediately “hitched up their bootstraps” and went to work with massive clean-up, recovery and rebuilding, the Mississippi Bar Young Lawyers Division (YLD), as an ABA affiliate, began in earnest fulfilling its role to provide free legal services to disaster victims in those 47 counties pursuant to an agreement between the ABA, YLD, and FEMA.
Within four days, the Mississippi YLD established a toll-free hotline with volunteer lawyers providing legal advice over the phone. When FEMA opened the first disaster recovery center on September 6, 2005, a YLD member who had lost his own home to the storm was there to answer questions from those affected by Hurricane Katrina. One week later, he housed several groups of volunteer lawyers from Jackson at his office. And thus began a steady stream of lawyers of all ages and from all areas of the state headed to South Mississippi to sit at the Legal Services table at one of the 34 disaster recovery centers that FEMA opened in Mississippi. These lawyer-volunteers helped Katrina victims with critical questions involving landlord-tenant law, mortgage, foreclosure and eviction notices, family law issues, and insurance. YLD members served as on-site disaster recovery center coordinators, finding lawyer-volunteers to work at all of the disaster recovery centers advising victims through the disaster-related legal issues they were facing.
We soon determined that the YLD Disaster Legal Assistance Manual provided to lawyer volunteers was woefully lacking, given the scope of the disaster. The Ole Miss Law School Civil Legal Clinic quickly updated and revised the legal topics covered in the manual. Nine days following the hurricane’s landfall, the MS Bar’s Litigation/General Practice Section held its first in a series of CLE seminars on the disaster-related legal topics. MC and Ole Miss law school professors as well as practicing lawyers in Jackson and Oxford trained the lawyer-volunteers in the areas of the law implicated by a natural disaster. MC law students answered the disaster legal assistance hotline during the lunch hour for several weeks.
By the end of October, the MS YLD began staffing the disaster recovery centers with the greatest need — Waveland, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs and Moss Point. On-site legal assistance by lawyer volunteers at the disaster recovery centers concluded on December 15, 2005, three and a half months after it began. The Disaster Legal Assistance hotline operated through January 31, 2006 — five months after the hurricane’s landfall. At the conclusion of the YLD Disaster Legal Assistance Program, over 6,600 victims of Hurricane Katrina received free legal assistance through the hotline or on-site at FEMA disaster recovery centers. Approximately 600 Mississippi lawyers volunteered. Over 300 of those provided face-to-face legal advice to fellow citizens from one of the 47 disaster-declared counties, and nearly 300 lawyers gave legal advice over the phone. Seventy lawyers from out-of-state were specially admitted to the MS Bar under a Mississippi Supreme Court Order, allowing them to provide pro bono legal assistance to disaster victims through the YLD program. Numerous lawyers on the coast offered on-site legal assistance themselves as well as southern hospitality at their homes to out-of-town lawyers who were working at the disaster recovery centers.
The goal of the disaster legal assistance program was to provide the delivery of free legal services to those who needed it most at a time when their need was greatest. Law professors and students from both Mississippi law schools, hundreds of Mississippi lawyers of all ages and from all areas of the state, including the hard-hit coast, and seventy specially-admitted out-of state lawyers volunteered countless hours of their time including the hard-hit coast to ensure that the goal was met and disaster victims were helped through a time a great crisis. Despite the negatives with the loss of human life and billions of dollars in destruction in this State, Hurricane Katrina showed us that Mississippians are resilient people, and our profession rallied around its fellow citizens to fulfill a small role in helping them as they rebuilt their lives and homes.