Less than a month after lawyer Carla Krystyniak moved with her family to Houston, she witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey as it slammed into Texas in August 2017. She is channeling that experience into a new job helping hurricane victims.
Krystyniak, who did environmental law for the city of Philadelphia before moving to Houston, recently started a two-year fellowship as one of 23 lawyers in Texas and Florida assisting victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. The lawyers are fellows with the new Disaster Recovery Legal Corps launched by Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit that aims to mobilize public interest attorneys. The fellows are assigned to various legal aid organizations in Texas and Florida.
Krystyniak said her passion is working on sustainable city initiatives, so her two-year assignment working with Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston helping hurricane victims is a good fit. She said she likes “being a part of something that’s going to help service those vulnerable populations and helping make Houston be the most sustainable city.”
In Texas, the fellows are working in Houston, Corpus Christi and Austin at a variety of organizations, including Lone Star Legal Aid, Boat People SOS-Houston, Houston Volunteer Lawyers, Disability Rights Texas, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Equal Justice Center, YMCA International Services and Catholic Charities-Cabrini Center. In Florida, lawyers are working at Community Justice Project in Miami and Florida Legal Services and Community Legal Services Mid-Florida, both in Orlando.
Sarah Lackritz, director of marketing and communications for Equal Justice Works, said that about 200 lawyers applied for the 23 positions. “There are a lot of people in the legal community eager to serve the needs of those navigating disaster recovery,” she said.
The lawyers work with well-established legal services nonprofits providing assistance in areas dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, landlord/tenant issues, contractor issues and other disaster-related legal problems.
“It’s an opportunity for lawyers who are already passionate about public interest law work. This is an opportunity for those to jump on,” Lackritz said.
Fellows Maria Diaz and Meghan Smolensky fit that mold. Both are native Houstonians, recent law school graduates, and laser-focused on a career in public-interest law.
Diaz, who graduated from Oklahoma University School of Law in 2017, said she started working in March at Boat People SOS in Houston, where her position was funded by grant money from the Greater Houston Community Foundation, but that money is expected to run out next year. Her position as one of four lawyers at the nonprofit was recently converted to one of the two-year DRLC fellows.
She said that while in law school she worked for a municipality in Oklahoma and at a law firm, but decided she wanted a career in nonprofit work and is looking forward to helping hurricane victims. “Once all the media attention dies down, people forget about these victims. Hurricanes and natural disasters don’t discriminate. It affected so many people of all different kinds, economic status, race, all people. It’s really a terrible problem overall,” she said.
Smolensky, who graduated from South Texas College of Law Houston in 2017, said she did an internship at Lone Star Legal Aid while in law school and was hooked. She took a job at a small family law firm in Texas to see what private practice was like but she said she didn’t love it. So she jumped at the opportunity to take the fellowship, which puts her back at Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston.
Smolensky said clients come in with a myriad Hurricane Harvey-related problems, including issues with wills, with contractors, with FEMA/insurance, and with landlords.
“It’s anything,” Smolensky said, noting that contractor fraud cases are especially common and leave her clients looking for some recourse and a way to either get their homes repaired or their money returned.
Krystyniak, who graduated from Villanova University’s law school in 2015 and is the lead fellow in the group, said Equal Justice Works placed the DRLC fellows at a variety of organizations, and the lawyers are not only handling typical contractor fraud cases, but also disability issues or immigration work for hurricane victims. Additionally, in Florida, two of the fellows are working on policy issues, she said.
“There’s a huge opportunity for us,” Krystyniak said.
Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast on Aug. 25, 2017, and dropped 51 inches of rain on Houston, causing extensive flooding magnified by releases of water from dams. Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida on Sept. 10, 2017. On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, which had days earlier already been battered by Irma.
The DRLC isn’t the first disaster-related fellow program organized by Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Works. Since 2005, the nonprofit has mobilized 45 disaster-recovery fellows among its more than 2,000 fellowships for public-interest lawyers.
The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has financial support from the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Florida Bar Foundation, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund and Texas Access to Justice Foundation.
The fellows were trained for three days this month at DLA Piper offices in Houston and many have started their assignments.