The Legal Aid Society’s Response to Superstorm Sandy
On October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy struck the Northeast region. The storm was one of the most devastating storms ever to hit New York City and caused unprecedented damage and disruption. The impact of the storm continues to this day. The flooding was extensive, leaving tens of thousands of New Yorkers without homes and those with homes were without power and heat for weeks. Many of the communities that were hardest hit were isolated and underserved prior to the storm, and community members were struggling prior to the disaster.
The Legal Aid Society represents low-income families and individuals in all five boroughs of New York City. The Society’s clients face even greater obstacles and challenges as a result of the impact of Superstorm Sandy. The Legal Aid Society immediately responded to the crisis by assisting low-income New Yorkers to begin to recover. The Society’s comprehensive approach has resulted in real benefits to literally thousands of low-income New Yorkers. Currently, Society staff has provided direct legal assistance in more than 5,700 matters for New Yorkers who were victims of the storm, as well as thousands more through the affirmative litigation that has been brought to assist additional affected families and individuals.
The Legal Aid Society
The Legal Aid Society, the nation’s oldest and largest not-for-profit legal services organization, is more than a law firm for clients who cannot afford to pay for counsel. It is an indispensable component of the legal, social, and economic fabric of New York City – passionately advocating for low-income individuals and families across a variety of civil, criminal and juvenile rights matters, while also fighting for legal reform.
The Legal Aid Society has performed this role in City, State and federal courts since 1876. It does so by capitalizing on the diverse expertise, experience, and capabilities of more than 1,000 of the brightest legal minds. These 1,100 Legal Aid Society lawyers work with some 700 social workers, investigators, paralegals and support and administrative staff. Through a network of borough, neighborhood, and courthouse offices in 26 locations in New York City, the Society provides comprehensive legal services in all five boroughs of New York City for clients who cannot afford to pay for private counsel.
The Society’s legal program operates three major practices — Civil, Criminal and Juvenile Rights — and receives volunteer help from law firms, corporate law departments and expert consultants that is coordinated by the Society’s Pro Bono program. With its annual caseload of more than 300,000 legal matters, The Legal Aid Society takes on more cases for more clients than any other legal services organization in the United States. And it brings a depth and breadth of perspective that is unmatched in the legal profession.
The Legal Aid Society's unique value is an ability to go beyond any one case to create more equitable outcomes for individuals and broader, more powerful systemic change for society as a whole. In addition to the annual caseload of 300,000 individual cases and legal matters, the Society’s law reform representation for clients benefits some two million low-income children and adults in New York City and the landmark rulings in many of these cases have a Statewide and national impact.
Beginning in the immediate aftermath of the storm, staff members of The Legal Aid Society have provided comprehensive disaster relief legal assistance at the shelters for homeless and displaced New Yorkers, at the disaster centers, at community-based organizations, through the Society's Mobile Justice Unit, and through the Society’s special citywide disaster relief hotline. The Legal Aid Society has targeted disaster relief services in the most affected communities in Far Rockaway, Coney Island, Red Hook, Staten Island and the Lower East Side. Since Superstorm Sandy, the Society’s core disaster relief legal services have included: providing legal help with FEMA and Disaster Unemployment Insurance claims; assisting with the replacement of medications and access to health care; obtaining Food Stamps and public assistance; providing civil legal aid in landlord-tenant, public housing, federal Section 8, and homeowner/foreclosure matters; assisting with loans and other small businesses matters; helping with school transfers and transportation issues; and providing legal assistance with family law and immigration matters.
The Legal Aid Society’s Immediate Response To Help New Yorkers In Need
During the storm and in the immediate aftermath, the managers, staff attorneys and support staff of The Legal Aid Society provided extraordinary services to clients and helped keep the New York City criminal justice system open. At the request of the State Office of Court Administration and the City, the Society provided representation to adults and juveniles in the arraignment parts that operated on Monday, October 29th until they closed at 1 PM when the full force of the storm began to hit New York City and then in the parts that resumed operation on Tuesday, October 30th at 5 PM just hours after the storm had died down. Then on Wednesday morning, October 31st, The Legal Aid Society resumed court representation at 9 AM in criminal, civil and family court matters when the courts reopened across the City even though the public transportation system was still down. All of this was done even as The Legal Aid Society’s own central office location in Lower Manhattan, housing nearly 400 staff, was damaged by the flooding from the storm and closed for two and a half months. Overnight, these lawyers and other professional staff had to be relocated to and work out of alternative locations.
By Friday, November 2nd, Society staff, using personal tablet computers and cell phones, were assisting public housing residents with FEMA and emergency food stamp applications and other legal needs at the Red Hook Initiative, a community-based organization close to the six public housing developments in Red Hook which were devastated by Superstorm Sandy. On the Saturday (November 3rd) and Sunday (November 4th) after the storm hit, Society staff assisted public housing residents with FEMA and emergency food stamp applications and other legal needs in Coney Island and at the Red Hook Community Center. On Sunday (November 4th), Society staff provided legal assistance to victims of Superstorm Sandy by helping with FEMA and food stamp applications at the Miller Field/New Dorp Lane FEMA Center in Staten Island, at the John Jay High School Shelter in Brooklyn, and in Far Rockaway.
The Legal Aid Society as First Responder
The Legal Aid Society’s central role in providing comprehensive disaster relief legal assistance to low-income New Yorkers devastated by Superstorm Sandy, is in keeping with its mission. Many of the Society’s clients live in underserved communities lacking access to essential services. Some of these isolated communities were hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy. The Legal Aid Society gathered its resources to respond to the disaster by immediately setting up systems to provide access to information and legal assistance to affected low-income New Yorkers.
Beginning on the Monday after the storm hit (November 5th), The Legal Aid Society set up a Disaster Relief Helpline to assist individuals with answering specific disaster related questions pertaining to, but not limited to: FEMA, housing, insurance, employment, and health-related legal issues. Supervised by Society staff, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, public service fellows and volunteers from the private bar answered over a thousand calls from disaster affected City residents. Working together with the Society’s partners in the private law firms, the Legal Aid Disaster Relief Helpline became a resource for advocates and volunteers in the field as questions arose regarding eligibility for benefits and assistance referrals.
By the Tuesday after the storm (November 6th), The Legal Aid Society had established individual outreach sites in Red Hook, Coney Island, and Far Rockaway. The Society used its Mobile Justice Unit to travel to those communities devastated by Superstorm Sandy. Likewise, the Society held clinics for affected families and individuals at the request of community-based groups, such as a clinic in Staten Island for immigrants that Society staff conducted at the request of Project Hospitality and El Centro del Inmigrante because many Staten Island immigrants expressed their fear of seeking assistance at the disaster relief centers because of the presence of law enforcement and their fear of deportation. In addition, Society staff members have held evening clinics in Coney Island for impacted tenants in subsidized housing, clinics in Red Hook for tenants in NYCHA housing, and a free resource and information clinic on accessing legal assistance in Lower Manhattan requested by local elected officials and community leaders.
Staff from Legal Aid’s Homeless Rights Project, with the assistance of social work staff, immediately began regular outreach to the evacuation shelters and hotels to meet with displaced victims of the storm. The social work intervention was invaluable as many of the traumatized victims were in need of assistance coping with the emotional toll of the devastation before they could begin working towards obtaining the assistance needed for recovery.
FEMA and SBA Appeals for Homeowners and Small Businesses
Through our Foreclosure and Community Development Units, The Legal Aid Society has assisted homeowners and small businesses through providing legal clinics in partnership with New York City local development corporations, the Federal Reserve Bank, and elected officials in Coney Island, Staten Island, Far Rockaway, Red Hook and lower Manhattan. The vast majority of issues have involved insurance claims and insufficient funds/grants/loans to repair or rebuild housing and businesses. The Society identified several private partner firms who agreed to represent homeowners pro bono in complicated insurance, SBA and FEMA denial claims.
Trainings, Clinics, and Systemic Assistance
In addition to outreach to individual New Yorkers in storm impacted areas, The Legal Aid Society has played a leading role in many initiatives to assist persons affected by the disaster including: providing trainings for pro bono lawyers assisting individuals and families in partnership with The City Bar Justice Center, Legal Services NYC, the City Bar Committee on Pro Bono, and Legal Services NYC; developing a Disaster Relief Legal Assistance Manual for volunteers; and conducting disaster assistance training for small businesses in affected communities in the City. Society staff members have also held evening clinics in Coney Island for impacted tenants in subsidized housing, clinics in Red Hook for tenants in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing, and the free resource and information clinic on accessing legal assistance in Lower Manhattan. Society staff also presented a radio seminar on the Building Bridges program that covered housing, public benefits, employment, and immigration issues.
Collaboration with other community-based organizations and non-legal entities on a wide range of issues enabled The Legal Aid Society to expand the availability of services offered and assist as many vulnerable New Yorkers as possible. For example, the Society’s Consumer Law Project staff began working cooperatively with the New York City Bar Association and other local organizations to create FEMA disaster assistance appeal forms for use by advocates and pro se storm survivors, and other disaster related materials. The Consumer Law Project has also been actively involved in providing legal clinic services to survivors in the affected neighborhoods in cooperation with FEMA, the Small Business Administration, Queens County Volunteer Lawyers, the New York State Department of Financial Services, and other organizations.
In the days following Sandy, NYCHA requested a meeting with the Society to address the urgent housing needs of literally tens of thousands of NYCHA tenants affected by the storm. The Society was successful in advocating with NYCHA to: 1) institute a special procedure for Section 8 tenants seeking transfers caused by Superstorm Sandy damage; 2) grant a full abatement for each day that a tenant was without one of the basic services of electricity, heat, hot water, or elevator service; 3) suspend all pending evictions through January 2013; 4) refrain from commencing any new non-payment or holdover proceedings against tenants in the most heavily impacted areas until February 1, 2013; and 5) in response to our concerns about dangerous and emergency conditions caused by Sandy in NYCHA apartments, establish a dedicated team of responders to address these needs. Although electricity, heat, and hot water have been restored to NYCHA buildings, unsanitary conditions such as mold remain, and the Society is pursing further advocacy to address the continuing problems for New York City’s most vulnerable tenants.
Finally, the Society’s Law Reform Unit quickly identified and commenced three important litigation and systemic advocacy initiatives in response to the problems that were observed in connection with survivors of the storm to address urgent food needs and the emergency re-housing needs of evacuated children and adults.
The Society has targeted and will continue to target regular disaster relief services in the most affected communities in Far Rockaway, Coney Island, Red Hook, Staten Island, parts of Lower Manhattan, and other locations with individuals and families affected by Superstorm Sandy, including the evacuation centers, hotels for displaced New Yorkers, and the City’s Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) office in the Bronx. Many New Yorkers impacted by Superstorm Sandy need assistance with the types of services the Society handles on a daily basis, including: housing, public benefits, health law, family law, immigration, employment law, tax, consumer assistance, assistance for homeowners, and assistance for small businesses. As each day passes, new issues and challenges are presented to the victims of this terrible tragedy. The Legal Aid Society continues to advocate with City, State, and federal agencies on behalf of thousands of needy New Yorkers in areas such as employment, health benefits, and homelessness in which we have experienced a staggering increase in demand for our services in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
Ongoing Efforts to Support Rebuilding and the Preparedness of the Advocacy Community The impact of Superstorm Sandy has highlighted the needs of so many isolated and low-income communities for better social and economic infrastructure. We see our work as providing direct legal services and advocacy to families and individuals, but also as a way to promote lasting and systemic change to their communities. We will continue to advocate with government to support enhanced income supports and subsidies for the impacted households, the promotion of economic development, the preservation and creation of decent, affordable low-income housing, and the revitalization and stabilization of affected communities. We will also work within the legal advocacy community to build on best practices to better provide direct legal services after future disasters or crises that impact New York City.
The Legal Aid Society is a member of the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding. The alliance is a coalition of community, labor, faith, and environmental justice organizations working for a more just and equitable recovery for Sandy victims. The Alliance is calling on government to build sustainable infrastructure that addresses economic inequity and unemployment, and to include all New York communities in a transparent process when making decisions about rebuilding.
Disaster Preparedness Conference
The Legal Aid Society, in partnership with The City Bar Justice Center and ProBono.Net, is holding a training conference on October 17th, 2013. This conference, "Disaster Lawyering: Delivering Legal Aid Post-Sandy" will be a reflective exercise for legal service providers in New York City that played an active role in Sandy Disaster Relief. The conference consists of three panel discussions: Lessons Learned; Pro Bono Assistance; and Year Two: Anticipated Legal Issues. The Lessons Learned panel will discuss effective and ineffective strategies implemented, surprises resulting from Sandy, and how providers handled non-legal work. The Pro Bono panel will discuss pro bono law firms' integral role in the legal assistance community's ability to handle a dramatic increase in caseload due to Superstorm Sandy. The third panel discussion, Year Two: Anticipated Legal Issues, will tackle issues surrounding long-term housing for those unable to return to their destroyed homes, disputes with landlords, mold, infestations, and rezoning and rebuilding efforts. The closing plenary session, a disaster preparedness presentation, will include a discussion of the question of “What to do if it happens again.” The goal of this conference is to inspire the legal assistance community to reflect on lessons learned and the long-term effects of Superstorm Sandy, and to prepare for future disasters.
The Society continues to encounter challenges in meeting the needs of our clients. Sandy-affected undocumented families are especially hard pressed because of their inability to access disaster benefits from FEMA and other federal sources. This has led to many undocumented families residing in unsafe and un-repaired housing. These difficulties are augmented by language barriers. Undocumented families also face the difficulty of providing evidence that they were affected by Sandy, as they often have minimal documentation of their pre-storm housing and employment.
In addition, there are a growing number of Sandy-related foreclosures and evictions due to arrears. Many residents have exhausted their resources while waiting for government repair funding, buyouts, and rental vouchers to arrive. The loss of income during and after the storm in addition to storm-related expenses has all but eliminated savings accounts and created debt that compounds barriers to economic recovery. This has also led to mortgage defaults and inability to pay utilities and rent.
Additional challenges include assisting homeowners with the new elevation requirements for home construction in specific areas, high insurance premiums, and contractor fraud issues. In addition to providing financial assistance, those impacted by Sandy require comprehensive counseling on issues related to housing and disaster recovery. Furthermore, the Federal government has referred to an “emerging crisis” regarding mold infestations and mold spores in homes damaged by Superstorm Sandy. The Legal Aid Society is prepared to assist clients with all of these challenges.
The Society will continue to streamline our efforts to assist affected New Yorkers. We will continue outreach efforts in the most affected communities and at the City’s Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) office in the Bronx. We are also continuing our efforts to advocate and work with City, State, and Federal agencies on behalf of our clients.