Jonathan Rhodes, Louisiana Civil Justice Center

Once phone service is restored on a widespread basis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Louisiana Civil Justice Center is going to get a whole lot busier.

The disaster-focused civil legal aid organization in New Orleans is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s official legal aid point-of-contact for residents of the islands. LCJC is taking calls from a toll-free hotline for residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have legal needs or questions stemming from Hurricanes Irma and Maria and cannot pay for an attorney.

Jonathan Rhodes, executive director of the LCJC, said calls are starting to come in from the U.S. Virgin Islands because phone service is coming back online, but few calls are coming in from Puerto Rico because phone service is still spotty.

“What good is a hotline if people can’t call?,” Rhodes said, noting that the number of calls will increase dramatically once island residents have phone service.

According to the latest statistics from FEMA, 29 percent of people in the U.S. Virgin Islands now have cellphone service, but only 12.1 percent of those in Puerto Rico have service.

With calls expected to increase, Rhodes said the LCJC hopes to recruit more lawyers in the islands and also on the mainland to provide advice. The agency has been getting 10 to 25 calls a day from the U.S. Virgin Islands over the last few days, he said.

Despite the infrastructure issues caused by the hurricanes, Rhodes said Legal Services of the Virgin Islands Inc. agreed to handle about 20 emergency legal matters from income-eligible people who called the hotline.

Rhodes said LCJC was established after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005 to operate a disaster hotline and help Louisianans with legal issues. Since then, LCJC has worked on multiple disasters and has become a standing disaster hotline, he said, as well as a general legal service agency through the hotline for Louisiana residents.

“It made sense to pull us in, not only because they are physically close,” Rhodes said, explaining why it is fielding hotline calls from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“This has never been done before—a remote hotline working for another location—especially two different places,” he said, noting that his agency is cooperating with the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, FEMA and the bar associations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Andrew VanSingel, director of disaster legal services for the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division, said the LCJC was secured to help with the hotline after Hurricane Irma hit the U.S. Virgin Islands, but it became a much bigger job after Hurricane Maria.

The LCJC is recruiting volunteer lawyers who are licensed in the islands but currently living in the United States. But Rhodes also expects to get assistance from other pro bono lawyers around the United States. VanSingel said they are working on partnerships with other agencies stateside that have staff and lawyers who speak Spanish, and they are starting a mentoring program to link lawyers skilled in disaster relief with lawyers licensed in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Rhodes said most of the calls from the U.S. Virgin Islands so far are emergency family law issues or landlord-tenant issues. It will be months before people seek legal advice on problems with insurance coverage or FEMA, he said. “A year down the road, we will start getting the contractor issues,” he said.

He said hotline calls from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands related to the hurricanes are likely to continue for years. The agency received about 100 calls a day for the months after August 2016 flooding in Baton Rouge displaced 100,000 people, he said.

Rhodes said the agency does not receive funding from the federal Legal Services Corp., but FEMA will provide some money for administrative costs, and LCJC will also seek private donations.

VanSingel said most of the agency’s assistance will be provided over the phone, given the devastation on the islands and the location outside the mainland. He said FEMA and the ABA Young Lawyers Division are working with the LCJC to provide a structure for legal aid, and he cautions lawyers against traveling to the islands on their own to provide legal assistance.

“Having 1,000 attorneys from all over the United States self-deploy—that in itself could be disastrous,” he said.

Senior reporter Brenda Sapino Jeffreys covers the business of law in Texas. Contact her at bjeffreys@alm.com On Twitter: @BrendaSJeffreys.