Does a tenant get a rebate on his rent money after being evacuated from his apartment unit as a result of Hurricane Sandy?
What about damage caused to leased items — like a brand new car? Who pays for that? The car dealer or the driver?
Connecticut lawyers have teamed up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up a hotline for residents where they can get answers to free legal questions they might have as a result of the storm and resulting flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy. Dana M. Hrelic, the liaison between the Connecticut Bar Association Young Lawyers Section and the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, is the point person who works with FEMA when a disaster is declared in Connecticut or Rhode Island.
“We’ve gotten some calls and are expecting tons more,” Hrelic said on Thursday, Nov. 8, adding that 6,000 people in the state have so far applied for FEMA services. “It’s a huge audience that we are addressing,” said Hrelic, who is also a member of the CBA Young Lawyers Section’s Executive Committee.
The toll-free hotline number for Connecticut residents seeking legal help is 1-866-864-4464. Residents will be able to reach someone from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The hotline is separate from one launched by the CBA’s Insurance Law Section, which focuses exclusively on insurance coverage issues. That number is 1-866-209-5099.
Hrelic, who works at the Hartford firm of Horton, Shields & Knox, has held the liaison position for a year, and said this is the first time during her tenure the FEMA-CBA partnership has activated. “FEMA only steps in when a president declares a ‘disaster’ area,” Hrelic said. The counties in Connecticut that have been declared “disaster” areas are Fairfield, New Haven, Middlesex and New London.
Immediately after the declaration, lawyers worked to get the hotline up, Hrelic said. CBA staffers in New Britain are fielding the hotline calls and then referring the callers to a team of about 30 lawyers, who are members of the executive committee of the Young Lawyers Section, Hrelic said.
Early on, CBA staffers reported a glitch that wasn’t of their own making. Towanda Sanders, a member services staffer at the CBA, said FEMA accidentally distributed the Connecticut number to New Jersey residents, about 50 of whom had called the CBA by Friday afternoon. “We apologize and tell them it’s the wrong number,” said Sanders, who otherwise praised the pro bono effort.
Hrelic said news releases have been distributed to alert the public about the Connecticut hotline.
Lawyers will be able to address topics such as: home repair contracts and contractors; assistance with insurance claims, such as life, medical and property ones; and applying for FEMA and other government aid. The ABA added that lawyers will be able to offer advice on replacing important documents, like wills, that might have been ruined during the hurricane, help with landlord/tenant disputes and mortgage forclosure problems, and work with residents on consumer protection issues.
Another benefit of the hotline is it gives people affected by the storm a place to simply talk about the problems they are having, Hrelic said. “I think a lot of time people just want to know that someone is listening.”
Robert Hockensmith, a FEMA public information officer, said the agency tries to communicate with disaster survivors about how they can get monetary and other assistance. The lawyer hotline is part of that outreach effort. “There are a lot of things that could come up that would require the assistance of an attorney,” Hockensmith said.
One complicated issue that has no easy answer is what to do if a leased item — say a forklift being leased by a businessman, or an automobile leased by an individual — was damaged because of Sandy, Hockensmith said. The person who is using the leased item will likely want to know who is going to pay for the damage. That is where the lawyers come in, trying to sort questions like that out, Hockensmith said.
There are seven Disaster Recovery Centers in Connecticut where residents who have questions about how to get FEMA assistance can go for information. The information given out includes the lawyer hotline number, Hockensmith said.
The Young Lawyers Section is not the only sector of the bar providing pro bono help after the storm.
Jaimie F. Dockray, who heads up Bingham McCutchen’s pro bono efforts on the East Coast, said the firm’s Hartford lawyers plan to help out in Connecticut. “We’re in the formative stages now,” said Dockray, senior manager, pro bono administration, who is based out of the firm’s NYC office. “We’ll be identifying ways we can assist with victims of Sandy on a pro bono basis.”•