Many law firms and legal aid agencies were up and running Wednesday following Hurricane Irma, but lack of power and phone service kept some legal aid locations in the state from reopening.
The Florida Bar’s Disaster Legal Services Hotline, 1-866-550-2929, came online Wednesday morning but had not gotten any calls by the end of the day, according to a Florida Bar spokeswoman.
“People are just starting to get back into their offices and some of the offices still don’t have power,” said Andrew VanSingel, director of the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services based in Chicago.
He said the hotline, which is a collaboration between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Bar Association and the Florida Bar, will be most useful for the immediate legal issues that come up in the two weeks following the disaster. It matches low-income Floridians needing legal advice after the storm with volunteer lawyers.
Historically, the initial work legal aid agencies provide after a storm often relates to landlord tenant issues. For example, tenants of a damaged or unlivable home often have questions about whether they must still pay rent, or they have a dispute with a landlord who wants to evict them to re-rent their undamaged apartment at a higher price when other livable rental properties are scarce. People who lose a job when they can’t drive because their car washed away in a storm or because their workplace closed due to storm damage sometimes need help or have questions about filing for FEMA assistance, VanSingel said.
Lea Remigio, director of operations in Orlando for the state-wide organization Florida Legal Services, said at least one nearby Orlando legal aid office still hadn’t been able to reopen. Several were still not answering phones.
“Most of the legal issues don’t really present themselves until weeks after, when people have landlord/tenant issues,” Remigo said, adding the organization works with migrant farmworkers who often, in addition to having homes damaged by the storm, find that the storm has blown away the crops they pick and wage disputes arise. “If they need housing or shelter, we’re getting them directed to those resources.”
She hadn’t received any storm calls as of Wednesday afternoon, but said some legal aid staff in some locations hadn’t been able to get to their offices to check messages.
“We’re not getting the influx of hurricane calls yet,” said Debra Koprowski, director of advocacy for Legal Aid Service of Broward County and Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida, which reopened Wednesday. “We think our clients are struggling right now with the basic necessities, in terms of getting food, water, gas. The kids are not in school. Maybe they can’t get to work. They are struggling with those issues before they can deal with legal issues. Another big issue is the courts are closed. Once the courts are opened, we anticipate there is going to be an influx of evictions filed because the clients didn’t pay their rent because they used it to prepare for the hurricane or the rental property’s owner’s home was ruined and they want the tenant to vacate.”
Before the storm, the Florida Bar Foundation board of directors set aside $500,000 to support Florida legal aid organizations that suffered infrastructure damage or equipment losses and help their clients with hurricane-related civil legal issues in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The money came from Florida’s share of a settlement between Bank of America, the U.S. Department of Justice and six states.
Law firms were also assessing the damage they and their employees had suffered in the storm.
Shutts & Bowen suffered some damage to its Jacksonville office, said Bowman Brown, chairman of the firm’s executive committee. The firm was still assessing how its employees had fared. Two lawyers in Orlando suffered roof damage and one of those also sustained flood damage.
Brown said Shutts & Bowen is giving non-lawyer employees $300 to help with unexpected hurricane related expenses. It also anticipates that it will offer help to employees who suffered catastrophic damage.