Nonprofit legal aid helps sort the tangles of superstorm Sandy

The New York Legal Assistance Group has worked hand-in-hand with Sandy victims to try to make the arduous road to recovery a little easier.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
A man rides his bicycle past shuttered businesses on Surf Ave., the main road through the Coney Island section of Brooklyn in New York City. Oct. 29 was the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which left more than 100 people dead and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage, much of which still remains.

Many people who suffered the wrath of Superstorm Sandy have spent the last year trying to make sense of a bewildering array of aid programs, fighting with their insurance companies, and scrambling to keep up with mortgage payments even as they make costly repairs.

Now the New York Legal Assistance Group, an organization that has worked hand-in-hand with storm victims to try to make the arduous road to recovery a little easier, is doing all it can to get charities, grantmakers, and government to think about legal aid almost in the same way it thinks about the Red Cross: an essential nonprofit service that starts work right after a disaster strikes.

“If we could have been in even more places and talking to more clients early on, we would have been able to resolve a lot of issues that we’re now having to untangle, that are more complicated than they needed to be,” says Ann Dibble, director of the charity’s Storm Response Unit.

The importance of legal services after a disaster is not well understood, says Yisroel Schulman, president of New York Legal Assistance Group. Out of the $60 billion Congress allocated for Sandy relief, he says, only $1 million was earmarked for legal services. What’s more, he says, foundations often don’t include legal services when they ask for grant proposals after a disaster.

Mr. Schulman’s group wants to change that. It carefully documented its work after the storm and the impact those services had on clients, and conducted an in-depth client survey, releasing its findings in a report, a summary of which is available online.

“We’ll be able to show government and private philanthropic funders the value and the role that legal services plays in disaster relief,” says Mr. Schulman.

The problems storm victims face are daunting and often multifaceted.

As an example, Ms. Dibble points to a client in Howard Beach, Queens, whose multifamily house suffered significant damage. After the storm, the homeowner lost the tenant whose rent she depended on to make her mortgage payment.

Her mortgage provider let her defer monthly payments, but that is coming to an end.

New York Legal Assistance Group is helping her try to negotiate a deal that will keep her out of foreclosure at the same time that it’s helping her with her insurance claim so she can make needed repairs.

People who have been through a disaster seldom think they need a lawyer, says Ms. Dibble.

“They think that everyone’s going to treat them fairly and efficiently,” she says. “Especially in the beginning, people just assume that everything’s going to be taken care of.”

To date, New York Legal Assistance Group has helped more than 5,500 storm victims deal with legal and financial matters related to Sandy. A critical component of the organization’s response was its ties to community groups in neighborhoods devastated by the storm.

The organization also started a Storm Help Hotline, operated by staff lawyers assisted by volunteers, which at its peak received more than 100 calls a week. It still averages about 30 calls a week.

Initially the group reassigned lawyers from other projects to focus on storm assistance, but in time the organization hired 27 lawyers, paralegals, and financial counselors for its Storm Response Unit and trained 1,000 pro bono lawyers and other volunteers to provide disaster-related legal services.

Perhaps the most unusual­—and eye-catching—part of the group’s response to the storm: its Mobile Legal Help Center.

Less than a year old when the storm struck, the 41-foot vehicle is a joint project with the New York State Courts’ Access to Justice Program. The idea is to take legal services into neighborhoods to reach people who have trouble getting assistance because they lack transportation or child care, have a disability, speak little English, or fear coming into the office because of their immigration status.

The Mobile Legal Help Center can accommodate up to 17 people at a time, and has videoconferencing capabilities that allow access to judges for emergency proceedings, such as unlawful evictions and orders of protection in domestic-violence cases.

“It was out there every day in the months after the storm, going right to the most impacted areas,” says Ms. Dibble. In the early days of the disaster, she says, the mobile help center also gave residents a place to get warm and charge their cellphones.

New York Legal Assistance Group also suffered from the ravages of Superstorm Sandy. The building in lower Manhattan that houses its offices flooded, and the group wasn’t able to return for 10 weeks.

So at the same time the nonprofit launched its storm response, it was scrambling to get normal operations back up and running, says Mr. Schulman.

“We had to find locations for 200 staff members,” he says. “We had to rebuild our computer network, rebuild our phone network, work without case files.”

Within days of the storm, the group conferred with legal-service providers on the Gulf Coast, who shared what they learned after Hurricane Katrina. Now New York Legal Assistance Group is passing it forward, holding webinars for legal-services groups after deadly tornadoes in Oklahoma and after devastating flooding in Colorado. Holding online training makes it easier for pro bono lawyers, representatives from the bar association, and others to attend.

“We actually offered to go out there, but I think they’re facing what we were facing,” says Ms. Dibble. “They themselves are physically displaced or physically challenged.”

The nonprofit doesn’t see a quick end to its work helping Sandy victims. The group currently has 1,600 open cases and still hears from 300 new people each month about problems related to the storm.

The stress of navigating relief programs, fighting with insurance companies, and making repairs is beginning to wear on people affected by the storm, says Ms. Dibble.

“It’s not uncommon for clients to say to us at this point, 'You do it,’” she says. “'If you think you can get me more money, you try to get me more money, but I’m tired. I can’t tell my story to one more agency. I can’t go through the whole thing again.’”

Ms. Dibble worries that the one-year anniversary is only going to exacerbate those feelings as people question why they haven’t made more progress in their recovery. But, she says, the charity’s lawyers are trying to rally clients’ resolve.

“We’re by no means counselors,” she says. “But we try to encourage people to continue on, to move forward, to help them see that there’s a path forward.”

This article originally appeared on the website of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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