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.
The nonprofit, which has been unable to return to its own storm-damaged offices at 7 Hanover Square, has fielded more than 100 calls each day on a storm helpline. And it has trained more than 1,500 attorneys who have developed a caseload of several hundred storm victims.
Garden City lawyer Jeremy Walsh is one of 80 volunteer attorneys who have helped almost 500 people through 10 clinics organized by the Nassau County Bar Association.
“You’re counseling them to go through their own thought process,” said Walsh. “So many people have questions on whether to stay or go” from homes and apartments that have been heavily damaged.
Among the advice he gives tenants is to “read your lease” because there may be circumstances in which they can break it.
The Legal Aid Society, which is also still displaced from its 199 Water St. headquarters, said its existing community-based programs, together with its storm-specific legal clinics, have helped 5,000 families, individuals and small business owners.
Both Legal Aid and NYLAG have sent RVs staffed by volunteer attorneys into hard-hit areas such as Coney Island, Far Rockaway, Red Hook and parts of Staten Island.
“There’s a continued need for housing and shelter and the restoration of social services,” said Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief.
Staten Island Legal Services is answering questions through its intake phone line, and its attorneys have been attending legal clinics twice a week.
“The extent of the damage is so great. You could see people’s lives have been decimated. There were people’s houses lying literally on the ground,” said Nancy Goldhill, the group’s project director.
The state bar, which has trained more than 2,000 lawyers on hurricane matters, recently launched a relief fund to provide financial support to local bar and legal services groups helping storm victims.
It set up a similar fund after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that raised $50,000 for bar groups working on recovery work in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.
“As we move forward with the recovery process, we anticipate that there will be a growing need for assistance with the many legal issues facing individuals, families and businesses in the affected areas,” state bar president Seymour James Jr. wrote in a letter to potential donors.
Meanwhile, then New York City Bar has collaborated with Morrison & Foerster to publish a free, 46-page handbook with information about taxes, emergency shelters, assistance for non-citizens, rights and responsibilities of landlords and renters, and other storm-related topics. Some 30,000 copies will be distributed.
Confusion About FEMA
Several lawyers cited misinformation and confusion over FEMA coverage as a top client issue.
Dibble said the problem is twofold: FEMA may not adequately inform storm victims of alternative sources of funds if they’re denied assistance, and people’s expectations of the relief organization are sometimes too high.
“People don’t seem to understand that FEMA is a benefit of last resort,” she said.
FEMA provides emergency money for temporary housing and can contribute to coverage for repairs to make a home habitable. But benefits are provided only if insurance won’t cover the full amount needed. FEMA rarely covers personal property, though small business loans do.
“We don’t duplicate flood insurance coverage,” said Ed Conley, a FEMA spokesman. “So if you have insurance, you need to contact them first before we make a determination to see if there’s any additional, unmet needs that we may be able to help with.”
“We don’t make people whole,” he added. “Our goal is to make sure you have a safe place to live.”
Marcy Wehling, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps legal fellow with Legal Assistance of Western New York’s Rochester office who has been temporarily assigned to Staten Island Legal Services, said some FEMA denials involve former roommates separated because of a damaged apartment.
“Some people have been appealing because their roommate has already [received] the FEMA benefit,” she said, and they have to prove the roommate has moved. Wehling said FEMA also has denied benefits to people who live in zones requiring flood insurance, but the property owner didn’t have it.
Client questions on private insurance are complex too. Because of the nature of the storm, there are numerous disputes over the causes of the damage and who should have to pay for it.
In one Long Island case, for example, a man living in a houseboat damaged by both rain and wind struggled with whether to go to his home insurance provider or the flood insurance provider.
Lawyers said they frequently hear from people who are waiting for their insurer to determine coverage. Some landlords who need to make repairs can’t go ahead because they haven’t yet received insurance funds to pay for the work.
Where clients have lost their entire homes and all their possessions, lawyers must advise them on whether to sell their property and start over or wait for aid money that may not amount to much.
“For those people who were substantially underinsured, it’s a tough gamble,” said New Orleans plaintiff’s attorney Soren Gisleson, who spoke at a recent state bar training on how to prepare property loss and flood claims after a major disaster. “Do you go into debt now in hopes that the feds give you some sort of money in the future to pay off that debt and to float yourself, or do you cut your losses and move on?”
Gisleson litigated hundreds of flood, homeowners and commercial claims after Katrina. The best thing lawyers can do for clients in the wake of a natural disaster, he advised, is to take steps to recover as much as they can early on in the adjustment process with their insurance companies.
That means putting together a thorough flood claim with ample documentation of losses and encouraging clients to follow up daily to push their claim to the top of the pile.
“Flood insurance cases are not good cases from a plaintiff’s attorney standpoint,” Gisleson said. “From the second you come in to help somebody with their flood claim and carry it into a lawsuit, you’re eating into their recovery.”
Lawyers with experience helping people through natural disasters said it’s critical to steer clients toward private grants and loans when FEMA or private insurance claims aren’t enough.
“It becomes less of a legal job and more of a lobbying job,” said Philip Wellner, an upstate attorney who helped clients through Hurricane Irene last year. “So much of it is lobbying anyway—you’re lobbying with insurers and FEMA. Look at other sources of potential coverage for damages too.”
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