Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. Photo: J. Albert Diaz

Without Legal Services Corp. funding, many Floridians would have been left in the lurch after Hurricane Irma, the state’s chief justice and a Miami legal aid leader said Tuesday during a congressional briefing.

The Washington meeting came weeks after President Donald Trump released a budget calling for the elimination of funding for the national legal aid grant organization. Congress decided instead to keep the annual appropriation at $385 million.

That money, which is awarded via grants to groups with 800 offices around the country, was key to helping low-income Floridians file for federal assistance, resolve landlord-tenant issues, sue fraudulent contractors and deal with other pressing problems after the September storm, panelists said.

“Funding the Legal Services Corp. is crucial when these catastrophes, these disasters hit,” Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said.

LSC board chair John Levi also announced at the hearing the creation of a national task force to help businesses and emergency management officials work with legal aid groups in the wake of disasters. Labarga will serve on the 30-member task force, which will include LSC leaders and grantees along with emergency management experts and other stakeholders.

Before Hurricane Irma, Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc. partnered with a variety of social services organizations and elected officials to make sure they knew what type of help the group offers, executive director Monica Vigues-Pitan said at the hearing.

That work came in handy when the legal aid organization lost power at its main office in Miami and was rushing to provide aid to hard-hit constituents in the Florida Keys, she said. An online Legal Services intake form allowed organizations like United Way to make referrals for people struggling with applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.

“It can be very complicated,” Vigues-Pitan said. “We found that people that aren’t usually our clients that were sort of just getting by with either fixed income if they’re elderly or limited income if they’re working poor … all of a sudden they’re our clients.”

About 2.6 million Floridians applied for FEMA assistance, Labarga said. Many low-income residents of the Keys live in mobile homes and were denied FEMA aid because they forgot to provide their lot numbers — requiring appeals that added to the need for legal aid.

After those immediate issues, legal aid organizations spend 10 to 15 years dealing with hurricane-related work, said Saundra Brown, director of legal services for East Texas’ Lone Star Legal Aid. Her organization only recently wrapped up title-clearing work stemming from 2008′s Hurricane Ike, and many low-income clients live without needed repairs for years before asking for legal help in disputes with landlords.

“Something like [Hurricane] Harvey hits like a ton of bricks,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said at the hearing. “You know it’s coming … but it’s like preparing for the sky to fall. There’s no real way to do it.”

In Florida, attorneys who were themselves dealing with storm issues rushed to help elderly clients who were barred from returning to their public housing apartments, Vigues-Pitan said.

“It’s inspiring to see when people care so much about helping their community and having an impact,” she said. ”We know that our clients, if we’re not there, are going to be much worse off.”