Local Bar Disaster Response

What you need to know to develop a successful plan.

Written by Ryan V. Cox and Sarah Dingivan

Local Bar Disaster Response
ABOVE: Pro bono volunteers assist community members in Victoria in 2017 as part of a program for Hurricane Harvey relief in smaller communities. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Bar Association and the San Antonio Young Lawyers Association.

When natural or human-made disasters strike, a variety of organizations—from the American Red Cross to local governments and businesses—will always step up to assist victims. However, the services available to those in need are often limited to their most basic human needs, like food and shelter. Time and again, disaster victims are left wondering how to piece together their lives once the relief dries up and public attention shifts away to the next crisis.

In looking at these larger and often long-term problems, there is often a mass of paperwork to complete, disputes about leases or insurance, confusion about eligibility for financial relief, family disputes over where children ought to be housed, lost identification documents, and much more. These are problems for which the bar is often the most qualified to provide assistance, and they create significant opportunities for local bar associations to develop and implement emergency pro bono programs and clinics that serve these specific needs in our communities. It is our responsibility to use our privileged status as lawyers to take on these challenges within our communities, and the organized bar at all levels is often the best outlet to develop such response efforts. But, as many of us have learned through developing these responses, we must prepare in advance for their inevitability so that we can spring into action when the time comes.

From our most recent disaster in Winter Storm Uri, to the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Harvey, to human-caused disasters like the Sutherland Springs shooting, the San Antonio Bar Association, the San Antonio Legal Services Association, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and the San Antonio Young Lawyers Association have developed significant experience in developing timely pro bono response programs for disasters to address the unmet legal needs of our communities. These are some of the lessons learned that can help local bars across the state to prepare for and develop their own programs.


Strike Quickly for Volunteer Recruitment
The fact is that, even within the bar, enthusiasm to support our communities in crisis will inevitably wane alongside the news coverage and general public outrage surrounding it. In developing a roster of attorney volunteers who are willing to assist disaster victims, our organizations must strike quickly. This was evident in 2017 as the Hurricane Harvey response clinics were developed. Within hours of landfall, a call for volunteers from the San Antonio Young Lawyers Association resulted in dozens and dozens of volunteers who were actively witnessing the storm’s devastation. But within a couple weeks, as clinics were happening across South Texas, additional recruitment became more and more difficult. Our community was fortunate that the initial call was made close in time to the natural disaster and created a roster of volunteers available for future outreach, a tool that was leveraged to engage individual volunteers for the weeks and months that followed. As discussed below, it is often preferable to wait to provide services until life has calmed, but the opposite is true for volunteer recruitment; it must happen quickly to be most effective.


Have Patience in Allowing Legal Issues to Develop
When a disaster occurs, it often upends the community so profoundly that people do not even know what legal issues they will have for quite a while. It may take weeks or months to learn that insurance is underpaying, that a Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, claim is denied, or that a landlord is not bringing a home back to habitability. Our instinct is to act now, but this is often unproductive in the middle of a crisis when families are more concerned about finding clean water than whether they can replace their furniture. Of course, this does not mean that legal problems are less important to families in the long term. It does mean, however, that we need to be patient in providing our responses over time and not allow ourselves to forget that these disasters have lasting implications for our communities long after the news coverage has moved on and things appear from our privileged perspectives to be “back to normal.”


One of the most effective ways to create good disaster response legal programs is to collaborate far and wide. The best response efforts include partnerships between formal legal aid offices, pro bono organizations, and large- and small-umbrella local bar associations—including young lawyer affiliates, practice-specific sections, and bar associations in neighboring communities—as well as collaboration with local governments and funders like the Texas Bar Foundation. Working together will bring in the most volunteers and assist with getting the word out far and wide that services are available—a problem often as difficult as any other.

Local Bar Disaster Response
ABOVE LEFT: Clinics were held for evacuees in San Antonio, and locally in Victoria and Portland. They were a swift collaboration between the San Antonio Young Lawyers Association, San Antonio Community Justice Program, Victoria Bar Association, and the Corpus Christi Young Lawyers Association, with funding from the Texas Bar Foundation. ABOVE RIGHT: San Antonio Legal Services Association, or SALSA, Executive Director Sarah Dingivan (right) receives a State Bar of Texas Presidential Citation for her work in developing the pro bono legal clinic for survivors and families affected by the Sutherland Springs shooting. BOTTOM: Remote pro bono volunteers assist front-line heath care workers at University Health System in San Antonio with estate planning documents in response to the declared disaster for COVID-19, putting these individuals at high risk of infection in the summer of 2020. Photos courtesy of the San Antonio Bar Association and the San Antonio Young Lawyers Association.

Publicity of services offered is a significant challenge for the bar, even when there are more than enough volunteers. Local government and news outlets are often the best outlets if you can plan fast enough. Local news stations and newspapers are happy to publicize free services when it fits with their already planned coverage of the disaster. Reporting with “problem-impact-solution” is very common in these spaces, but this method becomes more difficult if the clinics or services are not planned quickly enough to naturally fit with existing news coverage. However, cold calls or emails to local news producers or individual reporters have been successful in the past, including in the San Antonio bar’s traveling response clinics in localities like Victoria and Portland after Hurricane Harvey. Local elected officials are also usually a good resource as they have large followings on social media and are enthusiastic about providing help to their constituents. Local bars may want to develop a publicity list well in advance of any local disaster to facilitate quick outreach and education, including contacts for local media and government officials.


Research Resources and Request Funding
To properly provide services to members of the community, we must be informed about the resources available. This means disaster response efforts must have locale-specific materials to allow interested volunteers to readily access information about FEMA eligibility, funding from local and state governments and the eligibility for it, and other resources provided in the wake of the disaster—for example, in response to Winter Storm Uri, the city of San Antonio has earmarked significant funding for a plumbing-repair program for individuals that meet certain income requirements. Additionally, disaster relief legal clinics or pro bono programs themselves can often be funded in a variety of ways, allowing the bar to travel to underserved communities, providing guidebooks and other resources to community members, and paying other such expenses. The Texas Bar Foundation, for example, has historically been extremely responsive to these emergency needs.


Prepare to Train Volunteers
Legal volunteers in a disaster are almost always volunteering outside of their regular practice areas. Accordingly, in developing disaster response programs, bar organizations must work to anticipate what the likely issues to arise will be and to develop and accessibly maintain updated training materials for volunteers. Good sources for these materials include the Texas Young Lawyers Association, which has developed significant resources on landlord/tenant issues, FEMA claims, and many other issues (tyla.org/resources/), and the Pro Bono Texas website, which houses a comprehensive disaster response manual addressing dozens of common issues, leveraging the talents of legal aid organizations and advocates throughout Texas (probonotexas.org/disaster-manual).

While appropriate responsive actions will vary depending on the nature of the disaster, advance preparation and planning can ensure that our local bar associations are ready when the time comes. This is important work that makes a real difference in people’s lives, and we must heed the call to service and leverage our skills and knowledge to address these important problems in our communities.TBJ

is a senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project in San Antonio. He is a past president of the San Antonio Young Lawyers Association and serves on the board of the San Antonio Legal Services Association.

is the executive director of the San Antonio Legal Services Association and was previously the managing attorney of the San Antonio Bar Association’s Community Justice Program and a U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer.

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