Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Builds FEMA Appeals Network by Mary Chisolm Rios, Staff Attorney, Disaster Assistance Team, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid
It has been over four months since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Port Aransas and Port O’Connor and ripped through the central Texas coast with 130 mph winds. 1 Texans still have a long road to recovery ahead. Many residents are still waiting for the FEMA assistance they need to begin rebuilding damaged homes or securing new permanent housing. Some residents have been denied FEMA assistance altogether; others received FEMA awards far below what they need to return their homes to livable conditions. Still others have yet to receive any decision on their FEMA applications at all. The Disaster Assistance Group at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), led by Tracy Figueroa, has provided direct representation to over 200 Harvey survivors pursuing FEMA assistance. To expand its capacity, that group has worked closely with TRLA’s Private Attorney Involvement Group—including coordinator Pablo Almaguer and staff attorneys Adriana Leal and myself— to organize, train, and support a broad network of volunteer attorneys and law students who have stepped up to help with FEMA appeals.
Photo Credit: https://foxrio2.com/tag/fema/
Early on after Hurricane Harvey, several law schools contacted TRLA directly to offer assistance. Under the leadership of Professor Davida Finger of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, faculty from law schools across the nation began accepting cases and directly representing Texans in FEMA appeals. Schools that accepted appeals include the University of Loyola Chicago School of Law, Harvard Law School, the Earl Carl Institute at Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Pepperdine University School of Law, and the University of Georgia School of Law. In addition to the network organized by Professor Finger, TRLA was directly contacted by the following law
schools to offer assistance in various capacities, including legal research and intake support: Pepperdine University School of Law, St. Mary’s University School of Law, SMU Dedman School of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law, and University of Texas School of Law. Because the law school network was so successful in expanding TRLA’s capacity, TRLA staff began building a similar network of attorneys from the private bar. TRLA initially sent cases to Crystal Doyle, pro bono counsel at DLA Piper, and Francesca Eick, pro bono counsel at K&L Gates, in response to their offers to place cases with attorneys within their law firms. Meanwhile, Brenna DeVaney, pro bono counsel at Skadden, and Ellyn Josef, pro bono counsel at Vinson & Elkins, helped connect TRLA with the Association of Pro Bono Counsel. TRLA also created its own volunteer sign-up form for attorneys interested in serving Harvey survivors, which made it easier for volunteer attorneys from solo and small firms to sign-up to assist with FEMA appeals. To make referrals more efficient, TRLA formed a centralized email list and began sending case descriptions of FEMA appeals to all of the attorneys who had volunteered to take FEMA appeals on a pro bono basis. To equip the volunteers new to this practice area, TRLA compiled training resources, including webinar presentations and sample materials, and made these available online. TRLA has also remained involved to address volunteers’ substantive and procedural questions as they arise and to coordinate client communication when remote representation made communication more difficult. While initial referrals included simpler appeals, volunteers have since agreed to accept less straightforward FEMA matters as well. To date, TRLA has been able to place over 60 cases with law students and private attorneys. The private bar’s enthusiasm for working on post-Harvey FEMA appeals has been heartening for TRLA staff. By representing low-income clients in FEMA appeals, the private bar gets a glimpse into the lives of the population of clients TRLA serves daily. Through this type of direct service work, the private bar gains increased exposure to the issues that impact low-income communities—such as lack of access to adequate and affordable housing—and a clearer picture of how some of these problems are worsened by the destruction of natural disasters. One of the biggest challenges of handling the legal needs of low-income clients in the aftermath of a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey is the enormous influx of cases at one time. With this network of attorneys who are ready, willing, and trained to handle FEMA appeals, TRLA will be even more prepared to serve its clients after the next disaster. TRLA also hopes to build on this momentum by supporting the use of this or similar networks by other organizations who need help placing FEMA appeals after other disasters across the state and nationwide. TRLA has been working closely with Lone Star Legal Aid to further develop this network and sharing ideas and lessons learned. In addition, the success of the network has caught the attention of other legal services agencies dealing with disaster assistance, including at least one agency working on disaster response in Puerto Rico. Most of all, TRLA is grateful to have paired so many Texans with strong advocates to guide them as they try to rebuild their lives and homes after ravaging winds and rain brought so much destruction to their communities and homes.