Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas, bringing catastrophic winds and record-breaking rainfall to the Texas Gulf Coast region and the greater Houston area. As a shocked nation watched helplessly, Hurricane Harvey brought devastating floods to urban areas, leaving families stranded on their rooftops for days, contaminating the main water supply and displacing nearly 780,000 Texans from their homes.
According to FEMA, more than 19 trillion gallons of rainwater fell on parts of Texas. The consequences were disastrous. Nearly 80,000 homes were flooded with at least 18 inches of water. Of those, 23,000 were submerged in as much as five feet of water. After the storm calmed and the floodwaters receded, more than 42,000 Texans were housed temporarily in 692 shelters.
People’s lives were broken. United through donations of time and money, the nation came together to support them: an inspiring start to a long road to recovery.
After such a catastrophic event, legal needs will continue for years. For people already stripped of their worldly possessions, more trials are to come. This is where legal aid comes in. Local bar associations and legal-aid organizations throughout the state maintain pro bono programs that support private attorneys who volunteer their time to represent low-income Texans on a range of civil legal matters. Through these coordinated efforts, legal professionals are here to help — today and every day.
Whether disaster-related needs are long-term, short-term or somewhere in between, legal assistance can help rebuild lives. After a natural disaster, attorneys can aid with landlord-tenant questions, assist with insurance claims and help apply for flood insurance. Attorneys can also help an individual replace important legal documents such as IDs, driver licenses, Social Security cards and deeds.
One to six months after a cataclysmic event, myriad other legal issues may arise. Attorneys can help those in need with possible evictions, foreclosure prevention, insurance-claim disputes, emergency conservatorships and estate-planning-document replacement.
Long-term needs pose additional challenges. Within six months, and lasting for several years after the event, lawyers can assist those facing legal issues such as foreclosures, bankruptcies, defending FEMA recoupment, applying for disaster tax relief and disputing home-damage valuations.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, more than 2,400 attorneys, law students and paralegals have answered the call to provide pro bono assistance. We are thankful so many have stepped up to serve.
For every 8,000 low-income Texans who qualify for free legal services, only one legal-aid lawyer is available. Due to funding limitations, a significant number who qualify for assistance must handle their own legal issues. Pro bono attorneys help fill the gap, but many qualified Texans will remain unserved. The effects of funding shortfalls are multiplied exponentially following mass disasters.
This month, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, Texas Access to Justice Commission, State Bar of Texas and Texas legal-aid service providers are joining a national effort to highlight the need to expand access to justice through pro bono civil legal services. Financial support for legal aid is also crucial. In an effort to provide assistance to Texans reeling from Harvey’s destruction, the TAJF — Texas’s primary legal-aid funding source — created the Hurricane Harvey Legal Aid Fund. To date, 375 individuals and firms from across the United States have donated more than $179,000 to the fund and grant funds totaling $800,000 have been awarded by two national foundations.
Hurricane Harvey’s serious and long-lasting impact continues to unfold for the numerous Texans in need. The outpouring of help from legal-aid organizations and pro bono attorneys is a compelling start but, even so, it’s only beginning to scratch the surface. More help will be needed to ensure America’s promise of justice for all is a reality for all our citizens — not just the ones who can afford it.