In times of disaster, public interest organizations like Equal Justice Works become especially relevant as people who have lost their homes and livelihoods find themselves in special need of legal services. Equal Justice Works Americorps Legal Fellow Marcy Wehling gave Vault some insight into the legal aspects of disaster relief and the unique challenges posed by a storm’s aftermath.
Marcy, who graduated from CUNY Law in 2011, was doing public benefits and other civil legal work in Rochester with Legal Assistance of Western New York’s Legal Services for Veterans Project when Hurricane Sandy hit New York and its surrounding areas. She temporarily redeployed to Staten Island for three weeks to work with Staten Island Legal Services, an office of Legal Services NYC. Amid the mix of legal, social, and economic issues created by the storm, Marcy identified the following legal needs as some of the most pressing in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Clinics: As is to be expected, the legal challenges in the wake of Sandy are diverse, and there are a variety of tasks that need to be done, from staffing the disaster hotline to obtaining replacement food stamps, benefits and disaster unemployment assistance. One of the best ways to provide residents with regular access to these resources is to set up clinics, as Staten Island Legal Services has done. Staten Island Legal Services has been hosting free legal clinics every Sunday in areas of Staten Island hardest hit by Sandy. Collaboration is also key; the organization has been partnering with Occupy Sandy, which sends referrals to its clinic and also has set up its own programs like tool rentals. FEMA has also set up temporary clinics where residents can apply for disaster benefits.
Insurance Denials: One of the greatest challenges for residents has been dealing with FEMA application and insurance denials. Massive property destruction has left many people displaced, yet without the money for things like home repairs and personal property replacement, plans to move back to their original homes have been put on hold. FEMA and insurance denials are proving to be a big roadblock, and many people seek assistance with appeals. One case Marcy encountered was that of an elderly diabetic woman who had been living independently in a house without electricity, running water, or heat for seven weeks. She and Staten Island Legal Services are currently trying to obtain housing for this client, despite the problem of housing shortages.
Housing: Because Staten Island contains a high percentage of homeowners, residents there face unique challenges in the wake of Sandy, in contrast to the landlord/tenant issues plaguing the other NYC boroughs where property is predominantly rented. Interestingly, home-owning in Staten Island isn’t necessarily stratified; low-income and middle-income families and people on disability also own homes there, often through family inheritances up to three or four generations old, but also because home prices tend to be lower. Consequently, homes might be owners’ only asset, putting them at a loss as to how to legally and financially handle damage.
In the case of non-homeowners, housing issues and assistance are still dogged by complications. One scenario Marcy has encountered is one in which two people, who are neither family nor partners, live under the same roof under a boarder arrangement where one pays weekly rent to the other. For example, one client’s request for housing assistance was denied by FEMA because the money was given to the man she was renting from. FEMA said that she and the man comprised one household, yet Marcy’s client had neither talked to nor seen her roommate/landlord since the day after the storm.
Food: After housing, food poses the greatest need in the wake of a natural disaster. The widespread need for food assistance prompted a special post-Sandy benefit program in New York called Disaster SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or D-SNAP. D-SNAP is a one-time disaster benefit designed for people who are either over the usual income limit for regular ongoing food stamps or who are not yet enrolled but would otherwise qualify for food stamps. The program, for which the state had to get a waiver from the federal government to fund, provides extra help to those who are already burdened with an incredible amount of expenses and recognizes the priority of facilitating access to food right now.
Marcy estimated that relief efforts for Sandy, as for other natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, will continue for some time. She praised the New York legal community’s spirit of cooperation and collaboration in creating long-term plans after Sandy, which include establishing long-term income support, reworking infrastructure, starting sustainability initiatives and implementing disaster planning and assessment programs to be better prepared for future disasters.
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