Editors' Note: This article has been updated to reflect a Correction.
Eight weeks after Hurricane Sandy, New York lawyers who have been assisting storm victims pro bono say they are in the effort for the long haul.
However, their focus is shifting from the most pressing legal needs in the immediate aftermath of the storm to grinding long-term problems.
At first, the lawyers concentrated on securing temporary housing, food stamps and unemployment benefits for storm victims, and later, documenting damages for homeowner and flood insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency claims.
Now, people are increasingly experiencing difficulties with FEMA officials, landlords, insurance companies and contractors.
"We are absolutely seeing more disputes and problems where folks are not getting what we believe they're entitled to," said Ann Dibble, interim director for the New York Legal Assistance Group's storm response unit. "We're spending quite a lot of time representing people on appeals and reconsiderations to FEMA and private insurance companies."
NYLAG is already representing clients in storm-related litigation and is hiring up to 20 additional attorneys and staff to handle what it predicts will be long-term cases.
NYLAG said it was able to hire after receiving funds from the Robin Hood Foundation and the UJA-Federation of New York.
"You're going to have people who can't rebuild because they didn't have things like flood insurance," said Neil Axelrod, a Manhattan attorney with a small firm who was trained in flood-related legal issues through a New York State Bar Association webinar and has taken on 13 pro bono clients. "That'll be the biggest issue. In these types of situations, the issues drag on for years and years."
It is unclear exactly how many storm victims have gotten free legal help, but several groups' counts reach well into the hundreds.
NYLAG said it has helped more than 500 storm victims at its daily in-person clinics, where dozens of volunteer attorneys provide free consultations on topics including FEMA and Small Business Administration relief applications.