With Hurricane Harvey rains continuing to drench Houston, bar associations and legal aid organizations are gearing up to provide legal help to hurricane victims, and firms have pledged money to support aid even as their Houston offices remain closed.
While rescue workers, including recreational boaters, pull frightened Houstonians out of flooded homes, lawyers are preparing the establishment of a network to give advice to people with legal issues stemming from the storm that’s dumped dozens of inches of water throughout the nation’s fourth-largest city.
“The goal is to get a bank of volunteers,” said Andrew VanSingel, director of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services Program.
Teams of volunteer lawyers will hold clinics at shelters in Texas and throughout South Texas as soon as it is safe to do so, said Saundra Brown, manager of the Disaster Response Unit at Lone Star Legal Aid.
Lawyers will not be able to meet with clients at Lone Star’s main office in downtown Houston because the legal aid agency’s building caught on fire on Aug. 28 following an explosion. Brown said the explosion is still under investigation, but the agency has 14 offices, and others are open.
She said flood victims will want advice on dealing with insurance companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration. They will also need help dealing with other kinds of legal issues, such as tenant/landlord disputes arising when, for example, a landlord wants to evict a tenant because he needs an apartment for a relative who has been displaced by the floodwaters.
“The need is going to be huge,” said Brown, who had to flee her own house in Southwest Houston, which took on more than five feet of water.
According to information provided by VanSingel, FEMA had received 22,000 registrations as of the morning of Aug. 28 and projections anticipate the number will rise to as many as 400,000. VanSingel said there are more than 2.4 households in the disaster area, which spans 29,408 miles.
Brown said initial intake will go through a hotline operated by the State Bar of Texas, then income-qualified people will be referred to legal aid organizations, and others will be referred to other volunteer lawyer groups, such as the Houston Volunteer Lawyers in Houston. The legal aid organizations are Lone Star, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas.
Firms, meanwhile, are coming through with funds to support legal aid and more general disaster relief. For example, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher has donated to the American Red Cross, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges has contributed a total of $200,000 to various relief organizations and will match employee and partner contributions up to another $200,000. Holland & Knight, which has three offices in Houston, will match $75,000 in contributions to the American Red Cross with another $75,000.
Houston offices of firms remained closed Tuesday, with the storm still hitting the city. But lawyers with power were working from home, and lawyers in other offices were meeting client needs. Harvey’s impact is being felt in Dallas—250 miles away—as every major law firm in Dallas also has a large Houston office.
“It’s the energy capitol in the U.S. And for Winstead, it’s our second largest office,” said David Dawson, chairman and CEO of Dallas’ Winstead, which employs 300 attorneys, including 65 in Houston. “We service a lot of oil and gas and real estate and banking clients that are Houston-based. Our Houston office is significant in terms of the Winstead system.”
Like most law firms, Winstead shut down its Houston office this week and made sure its staff was safe. Many of them are working out their homes or in the firm’s office in The Woodlands, which was unaffected by the storm.
“We’ve got great folks and they’re trying to balance their clients’ needs and their own personal needs,” said Dawson, who said he is spending all of his time making sure the firm’s Houston employees are out of danger and communicating with their clients.
Mark Sloan, managing partner of Dallas’ Thompson & Knight, shut down the firm’s Houston office early on Friday and does not expect it to reopen until next week at the earliest. “Right now, nobody knows how long it will be until people can travel in Houston,” he said.
Some of the firm’s Houston-based attorneys are working remotely and some have left the city and are working out of other offices, Sloan said. “The good thing is all of our servers are off site and safe.”
But employees’ safety and well-being is the firm’s primary concern, Sloan said. The firm anticipates it will use funds from its charitable foundation to assist employees who suffer uninsured property damage as a result of the hurricane.