Pro Bono Net is pleased to announce our new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) national trainings for lawyers and advocates nationwide. The webinars are not only for those currently working with survivors of climate-driven disasters, but also for advocates who may potentially support disaster survivors in the future. The trainings are designed in partnership with Legal Aid of Sonoma County and the Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative. It is supported by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation. 

What will the trainings focus on?

After the President of the United States declares a major disaster, federal funds may be available through FEMA for individuals, families, and small businesses to recover. Many disaster survivors apply to access these funds, but they can be denied this assistance or not provided with enough assistance to recover. Disaster survivors have a right to appeal, but only a small percentage of them do.

The national trainings will focus on the process lawyers and other advocates working with survivors must follow if they want to appeal FEMA’s determination on disaster assistance. Attendees will also learn how to use Pro Bono Net’s bilingual FEMA appeals digital tool to create an appeal letter. The tool helps survivors to understand the appeals process, makes it easier to clearly articulate why the agency should reconsider its decision, and gives survivors a greater chance of obtaining the assistance they need to recover from the disaster. Over the past decade, the tool has helped over 14,000 survivors impacted by major climate disasters. All trainings will have closed captioning.

Who will present the trainings and when will they take place?

Pro Bono Net is conducting the trainings in partnership with Legal Aid of Sonoma County and the Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative. We will host a total of four trainings for different audiences starting in June 2023 and continuing through September 2023:

  • Tuesday, June 13, 2023, at 2:00 pm ET – “A Beginner’s Guide to Appealing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Assistance Decision,” will be open to community librarians, disaster case managers, staff and attorneys at legal aid organizations and pro bono programs, attorneys interested in doing pro bono work after a disaster, and advocates from long-term recovery groups nationwide. Register here
  • Tuesday, July 25, 2023, at 11:00 am PT – “A Beginner’s Guide to Appealing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Assistance Decision (California),” will cover the FEMA appeals process and include specific information for attorneys and other advocates working with California-based survivors. Register here
  • Tuesday, August 22, 2023, at 2:00 pm ET – “A Disability Rights Advocate’s Guide to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Assistance Appeals Process,” will include specific information that attorneys and advocates should know about when working on a FEMA appeal with a disaster survivor that has a disability. Register here
  • Tuesday, September 19, 2023, at 2:00 pm ET – “A Beginner’s Guide to Appealing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Assistance Decision (Spanish interpretation provided),” will be open to community librarians, disaster case managers, staff and attorneys at legal aid organizations and pro bono programs, attorneys interested in doing pro bono work after a disaster, and advocates from long-term recovery groups nationwide. Spanish interpretation will be provided. Register here

Will the trainings be recorded?

Recordings and training materials will be posted to the Advocate Network of Advocate for Disaster Justice at Access to the materials and recordings will require a log-in as a member, but membership is free. Learn more here.

About Pro Bono Net 

Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit leader in building technology and collaborations that bring the power of the law to all. For over 20 years, Pro Bono Net and its programs have supported disaster recovery by connecting lawyers and equipping survivors with resources and self-advocacy tools. Learn more here

About Advocates for Disaster Justice 

Advocates for Disaster Justice, formerly, is the largest national network of justice advocates and allies working to advance equity, rights and resilience in communities impacted by climate-driven and other disasters. Learn more here.

About Legal Aid of Sonoma County 

Legal Aid of Sonoma County has provided services to Sonoma County’s indigent population for over 60 years. Founded in 1958 and incorporated in 1983 as a private nonprofit, Legal Aid provides crisis legal services to low-income families, children, elders, immigrants, and other vulnerable Sonoma County residents. Learn more here.

About the Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative

The Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative (DLAC) is a partnership of 27 organizations throughout the state that includes legal aid organizations, law firms, government agencies, local bar associations, and social services providers. Our mission is to deliver free legal assistance to all those impacted by disasters throughout California.  DLAC recruits and trains volunteer attorneys to provide free legal assistance and resources to disaster survivors through its call-in Helpline, online platform Free Legal Answers, disaster preparedness outreach, and Title Clearing Program. Learn more here.

About the Bigglesworth Family Foundation 

The Bigglesworth Family Foundation supports programs and projects that help create systemic change by strengthening the capacity of non-profit organizations and addressing delivery system and historic challenges. Learn more here.

Pro Bono Net and the American Bar Association (ABA) Young Lawyers Division (YLD)  Disaster Legal Services Program are pleased to announce the Spanish version of a self-help disaster recovery tool ( that allows disaster survivors to create an appeal letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The tool, “Carta de apelación a la Agencia Federal de Manejo de Emergencias (FEMA, por sus siglas en inglés),” can be found here. Frequently Asked Questions about the FEMA appeals process can be found here

The frequency, intensity, and aftermath of climate disasters continue to impact communities across the country, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration once again predicts an above-normal hurricane season for 2022. As we have learned from past disaster responses, survivors who speak languages other than English face more barriers in receiving critical information from authorities or accessing disaster assistance that can help them recover and rebuild. 

When Hurricane Ida devastated communities in 2021 across the eastern coast, officials in New York called for improved language access measures to alert individuals who spoke languages other than English and Spanish. After Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina in 2018, over 150,000 individuals who speak a language other than English lived in disaster-impacted areas. Just a year before, the response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the California wildfires brought a number of language access issues that were well-documented by groups on the ground. 

One of the main federal assistance programs to aid survivors after a major disaster comes from FEMA. Individuals can apply for federal disaster assistance, and if they are denied assistance or awarded less than they need to cover for damages, survivors can appeal FEMA’s determination. Many survivors apply to FEMA but are often denied for reasons that can be explained through an appeal letter with additional documentation. 

Pro Bono Net’s FEMA appeals interactive interview, powered by LawHelp Interactive, enables survivors to create and generate an appeal letter they can print or download to file directly with FEMA. It was initially developed with the City Bar Justice Center in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and has helped over 14,000 survivors impacted by multiple major disasters. It has also been updated over time to reflect changes in the application and appeals process, including in 2021 to incorporate questions that address the needs of survivors with disabilities. These updates come at a time when federal agencies, including FEMA, are reexamining their policies and practices to eliminate barriers that have historically prevented people from accessing federal disaster assistance. 

“Language access is a critical component of equitable disaster recovery,” said Linda Anderson Stanley, Special Advisor of the ABA YLD DLS program. “The additions to this tool come at a key time as the Atlantic hurricane season is upon us. We are lucky to work with Pro Bono Net on such an important project.” 

“We are pleased to work with the ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services Program to make our tool accessible to Spanish-speaking survivors,” said Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager at Pro Bono Net. “With Spanish being the second most spoken language in the U.S., this is an important step toward more equitable responses after disasters. We hope to reach more people seeking federal assistance to recover.”

Survivors can access the Spanish version of the FEMA appeals interactive interview by clicking here:  

To see this post in Spanish, please click here. Para ver este comunicado en español, por favor oprima aquí.

Special thanks to Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico (Legal Services of Puerto Rico), Morrison & Foerster, the Louisiana State Bar Association, the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, and Nicole del Rio (former member of the ABA-YLD Disaster Legal Services) for their invaluable feedback as part of the review and testing process. 

About Pro Bono Net 

Pro Bono Net is a nonprofit leader in increasing access to justice, transforming the way legal help reaches the underserved through innovative technology and collaboration. To learn more about Pro Bono Net’s programs, click here. For more information about Pro Bono Net’s disaster recovery efforts, click here

About the ABA Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services Program 

Through the Disaster Legal Services Program, the ABA Young Lawyers Division (YLD) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide immediate temporary legal assistance to disaster survivors at no charge. Since September 2007, the ABA YLD has responded to over 200 major disasters across the U.S. To learn more about the program, please click here

Pro Bono Net y el Programa de Servicios Legales por Desastre de la División de Jóvenes Abogados (Young Lawyers Division, YLD por sus siglas en  inglés) del Colegio de Abogados de Estados Unidos (American Bar Association, ABA por sus siglas en inglés) se complacen en anunciar la versión en español de, un programa interactivo que permite a los sobrevivientes de desastres crear una carta de apelación a la Agencia Federal para el Manejo de Emergencias (FEMA, por sus siglas en inglés) si se les ha denegado la asistencia o si quisieran apelar la asistencia otorgada. El programa se puede encontrar aquí.

La frecuencia, la intensidad y las consecuencias de los desastres climáticos siguen afectando a las comunidades de todo el país, y la Oficina Nacional de Administración Oceánica y Atmosférica vuelve a predecir una temporada de huracanes superior a la normal para 2022. Como hemos aprendido de las respuestas a desastres anteriores, las personas sobrevivientes que hablan idiomas distintos del inglés se enfrentan a más obstáculos a la hora de recibir información esencial de las autoridades o de acceder a la asistencia en caso de desastre.

Cuando en 2021 el huracán Ida impactó comunidades a lo largo de la costa Este de los Estados Unidos, los funcionarios de Nueva York pidieron que se mejoraran las medidas de acceso lingüístico para poder alertar a las personas que hablan otros idiomas distintos del inglés y el español. Tras el paso del huracán Florence por Carolina del Norte en 2018, más de 150 000 personas que hablan un idioma distinto al inglés vivían en zonas afectadas por el desastre. Justo un año antes, la respuesta a los huracanes Harvey, Irma, María y los incendios forestales de California trajo aparejada una serie de problemas de acceso al idioma  que fueron bien documentados por los grupos que se encontraban trabajando en el lugar.

Uno de los principales programas federales de asistencia para ayudar a los sobrevivientes después de un gran desastre es el que ofrece FEMA. Las personas pueden solicitar la ayuda federal en caso de desastre y, si se les niega la ayuda o se les concede menos de lo que necesitan para cubrir los daños, los sobrevivientes pueden apelar la decisión de FEMA. Muchos sobrevivientes presentan su solicitud a FEMA, pero a menudo se la rechazan por razones que pueden explicarse a través de una carta de apelación con documentación adicional.

Este programa interactivo fue creado por Pro Bono Net con tecnología de LawHelp Interactive y permite a los sobrevivientes crear y generar una carta de apelación que pueden imprimir o descargar para presentarla directamente ante FEMA. Se desarrolló inicialmente en colaboración con el Centro de Justicia del Colegio de Abogados de la Ciudad de Nueva York tras la supertormenta Sandy en 2012 y ha ayudado a más de 14, 000 sobrevivientes afectados por varios desastres. También se ha actualizado a lo largo del tiempo para reflejar los cambios en el proceso de solicitud y apelación de FEMA como en 2021, que se incorporaron preguntas que abordan las necesidades de los sobrevivientes con discapacidades. Estas actualizaciones llegan en un momento en que las agencias federales, incluyendo a FEMA, están reconsiderando sus políticas y prácticas para eliminar los obstáculos que históricamente han impedido a las personas acceder a la asistencia federal en caso de desastre.

“Los servicios accesibles son un componente fundamental para una recuperación equitativa en caso de desastre”, dijo Linda Anderson Stanley, asesora especial del Programa de Servicios Legales por Desastre de la División de Jóvenes Abogados del Colegio de Abogados de Estados Unidos. “Las actualizaciones de esta herramienta llegan en un momento clave, ya que estamos en plena temporada de huracanes en el Atlántico. Tenemos la suerte de colaborar con Pro Bono Net en este proyecto tan importante”.

“Nos complace trabajar con el Programa de Servicios Legales por Desastre de la División de Jóvenes Abogados del Colegio de Abogados de Estados Unidos para hacer disponible nuestra herramienta a las personas sobrevivientes que hablan español”, comentó Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, gerenta de iniciativas estratégicas y pro bono de Pro Bono Net. “Dado que el español es el segundo idioma más hablado en Estados Unidos, se trata de un paso importante hacia una respuesta más equitativa tras los desastres. Esperamos llegar así a más personas que buscan asistencia federal para recuperarse de un desastre”.

Los sobrevivientes pueden acceder a la versión en español del programa interactivo para apelaciones ante FEMA haciendo clic aquí: 

Un agradecimiento especial a Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico, Morrison & Foerster, el Colegio de Abogados de Louisiana, el Centro Jurídico para Inmigrantes de Nuevo México y Nicole del Rio (ex miembro del Programa de Servicios Legales por Desastre de la División de Jóvenes Abogados del Colegio de Abogados de Estados Unidos) por sus valiosos comentarios como parte del proceso de revisión.

Acerca de Pro Bono Net

Pro Bono Net es una organización sin fines de lucro, líder en la ampliación del acceso a la justicia, que transforma el modo en que la ayuda legal llega a las personas con bajos ingresos a través de la colaboración y la tecnología innovadora. Para obtener más información sobre los programas de Pro Bono Net, haga clic aquí. Para obtener más información sobre las iniciativas de recuperación en caso de desastre de Pro Bono Net, haga clic aquí.

Acerca del Programa de Servicios Jurídicos en Caso de Desastre de la División de Jóvenes Abogados del Colegio de Abogados de Estados Unidos 

A través del Programa de Servicios Legales por Desastre, la División de Jóvenes Abogados del Colegio de Abogados de Estados Unidos y la Agencia Federal de Manejo de Emergencias ofrecen asistencia legal temporal inmediata y gratuita para los sobrevivientes de desastres. Desde septiembre de 2007, la División de Jóvenes Abogados del Colegio de Abogados de Estados Unidos ha respondido a más de 200 desastres en todo Estados Unidos. Para obtener más información sobre el programa, haga clic aquí.

Pro Bono Net is pleased to announce an important update to an interactive, guided interview that allows disaster survivors to generate an appeal letter if they have been denied assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or would like to appeal the amount awarded by the agency. The guided interview, powered by Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive program, is available at Since the 2017 major disasters, the interview has been used nearly 9,000 times by individuals affected by major disasters in the United States such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

Pro Bono Net, in partnership with the City Bar Justice Center, initially created the tool in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy for use by people impacted by disasters who cannot afford a lawyer. In 2017, Weil, Gotshal & Manges updated the interview for people affected by Hurricanes María, Irma, Harvey, and the California wildfires. This year, Pro Bono Net worked with Disability Rights Texas to incorporate questions that address the needs of survivors with disabilities. Answers to the questions in the interactive interview are input into a form letter that a survivor can save to their computer and print out for submission to FEMA as an appeal. Users can also email the letter to a third party, such as an attorney, for review.

Disability Rights Texas (DRTx) is the Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agency for the state of Texas. DRTx works to ensure that Texans’ with disabilities have equitable opportunities that are free from discriminatory barriers across all societal domains and their individual rights and liberties are upheld.  DRTx’s priorities now include disaster planning and recovery and in response to Hurricane Harvey had dedicated personnel to assist with legal needs. 

In working the response to Hurricane Harvey, DRTx’s immediate caseloads were occupied with FEMA denials and FEMA appeals.  Navigating FEMA’s process is complex and confusing and for disaster survivors with disabilities, meaningful access was denied, as FEMA lacked a public facing reasonable accommodation process to ensure an equitable opportunity to participate in and benefit from FEMA’s programs.  A failure to address and engage with disaster survivors with disabilities to determine specific needs, was the most substantial barrier the disability community faced.  

Sometimes clients were denied effective communication, as accommodations as obvious as an interpretation in a different language either for the application itself or for an inspection were not provided.  Sometimes clients needed continued assistance throughout FEMA’s process to address mental health needs, or maybe they required, as a reasonable accommodation, a modification to a specific policy that was creating a discriminatory barrier, yet FEMA lacked a means to request and sustain a reasonable accommodation for a disaster survivor with a disability.

The FEMA appeals interview will allow, as a pro se tool, for disaster survivors with disabilities to explicitly address their lack of meaningful access to FEMA’s programs based on FEMA’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.  A FEMA denial of an accommodation denies an equitable opportunity for disaster survivors to access FEMA’s programs.  Sometimes the legal aid response in disasters can be limited due to the overwhelming need. This tool affords an independent resource for advocacy. Survivors impacted by a major disaster and that have applied to FEMA can use the tool to generate an appeal letter. The tool is also inclusive of the barriers the disability community may face in recovery. 

In September 2021, FEMA updated its disaster assistance application.

Specifically, question number 24 on the application now allows for an individual to request a specific reasonable accommodation.  This option is new and FEMA has not released specific guidance on how the reasonable accommodation process will work.  The FEMA appeal interactive interview can be a critical tool to assist in navigating these new procedures.

We hope this updated tool is helpful to survivors in communities recovering from the impact of Hurricane Ida and other climate-driven disasters such as the wildfires in California. 

Pro Bono Net thanks Stephanie Duke, Attorney and Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Fellow at Disability Rights Texas, for her continued advocacy on behalf of disaster survivors with disabilities and her work on these updates. Pro Bono Net also thanks Capstone Practice Systems for its generous support in making updates to the interview. 

To access the interview, you can visit To learn more about Disability Rights Texas, visit To learn more about Pro Bono Net’s disaster recovery efforts, visit For any questions or comments about the program, please contact Pro Bono Net’s Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager, Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz at

Pro Bono Net’s Adam Friedl and Jake Hertz share their reflections on the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.

Jake Hertz

The one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy is a moment to step back, take stock of our successes and failures, and ponder how we can apply the lessons learned to continuing Sandy relief efforts and preparing for future disasters.

One of the main themes that emerged from the Superstorm Sandy Interview Series was the lack of institutional knowledge and the lack of preparedness to provide storm relief. As a community, we need to ensure that we learned how to provide efficient and effective disaster legal services, so that when the next storm comes we are better able to assist clients, predict trouble spots, and act instead of react.

The recent Disaster Lawyering Conference, sponsored by The Legal Aid Society, City Bar Justice Center, and Pro Bono Net, focused on challenges and lessons learned and how to address ongoing and future needs. The goal of the Sandy Interview Serieswas to highlight the legal services community’s successes and challenges over the past year and provide a roadmap in the lead-up to the Conference. We conclude the Series with a reflection on themes, the conference, the past year of Sandy relief, and a few brief suggestions for ways forward.

The Disaster Lawyering Conference Logo

Upon finishing my final interview, with Victor Tello of CBJC, I was struck – but not surprised – at how one topic had been the primary theme of every interview: insurance. More than anything else – even FEMA or unlicensed contractors – the advocates continually brought up insurance issues as the area where the greatest need remained and accordingly where they had struggled the most to meet the massive need.

The causes of these struggles were as predictable as they were unexpected: “the typical legal services client does not have insurance issues” (Victor). In my first post on Connecting Justice Communities, I spoke of supply and demand for legal services and those same forces created many of the post-Sandy insurance problems. As most legal services clients do not need insurance assistance, insurance is “not within the usual purview and training of a legal services attorney” (Jennifer). Insurance law is complex and technical – “even the sophisticated layperson will have difficulty trying to figure out what the policies say” (Young) – and lacking training, the legal services community was unprepared to deal with the insurance fallout post-Sandy.

More than creating new problems, disasters typically exasperate pre-existing conditions and Sandy was no different. Sandy was a devastating illustration of societal changes and how the legal services community needs to adapt to a new world. Says Jennifer Ching: “one of the big challenges that we have to confront is the issue of the pro bono bar not being able to take on long-term insurance and finance-related cases. In a world where financial concerns are increasingly central, low-income people have significant financial needs as well.”

As frustrating as the situation can be, it is imperative that we respond positively and proactively. Instead of trying to work through unsolvable problems and conflicts, we must devise creative solutions that allow the legal community to assist as many people as possible, even if it means providing services in new, less traditional ways. The past year revealed the cavern we are in, but it also illuminated the path out.

In the aftermath of Sandy, the legal services community was forced to think outside the box to meet the vast – and new – needs of its client base. The City Bar Justice Center began monthly Insurance Roundtables “to discuss and learn about arising issues in an informal setting” (Victor). Other providers, such as Brooklyn Jubilee and The Legal Aid Society, brought in pro bonos to provide instruction and the “certain amount of training and esoteric knowledge” needed to deal with insurance issues (Young).

FEMA Appeals

Similarly we at Pro Bono Net produced webinars on insurance issues, ensuring that access to critical information and training was available asynchronously. In addition, we, in collaboration with other legal groups and with generous funding from the New York Community Trust, created – a website for unrepresented storm victims featuring an interactive online interview that generates complete and properly formatted FEMA appeals. FEMA Appeals leverages pro bono expertise to assist more people that could ever be served in a traditional pro bono model. These initiatives suggest a new way forward for providing insurance-related legal aid, both in disaster relief and in ordinary times.

We can combine these ideas with the traditional pro bono model and ever increasing technological resources to create a new bifurcated model for providing pro bono on tricky disaster issues. Using insurance as an example, we can devise a rough sketch of what a new model could look like.

The first part of the model scales up the interaction between pro bono and legal services attorneys through roundtables and brainstorming sessions where pro bonos provide training, advice, and tips on both the basics and the esoteric and highly technical aspects of insurance law (or any other highly technical area of law) – from both a theoretical and a practical perspective. This will allow pro bonos to assist on insurance and financial services matters and legal services attorneys to gain valuable insurance training, and most importantly provide for the effective representation of a greater number of clients. And perhaps attorneys can even get some CLE!

The second part of the new pro bono model is more in line with the traditional model. On the pro bono panel, Saralyn Cohen of Shearman & Sterling LLP was practically pleading with the audience to give firms boring, “grunt” work. The firms can do research, document assembly and review, and other backroom tasks that are essential to any successful case. For example, in the future pro bonos,can review documents generated by sites such as interviews.

In his interview, Victor pointed out that “firms are also capable of doing a great amount of research and work that doesn’t require direct client interaction but will still help a lot of people. That is something that we should definitely explore in the future.” It is more than something that we should explore; it is something that we need to take advantage of.

Moving forward, we must use our experience to create well-developed models that provide both broad and targeted assistance. As every interviewee was quick to point out, the next disaster will produce new and different challenges. Thus, we need to create adaptable models that are applicable to a range of issues and concerns. The bifurcated model laid out above suggests a way forward for providing pro bono assistance on insurance matters and other tricky areas such as foreclosure and consumer fraud.

Adam Friedl

A few days after the storm, when offices were still closed, I remember saying to my wife as we wandered our (largely spared) neighborhood surveying the damage: “I’m guessing I might have to work late a couple of days next week.” In retrospect, I was a little off with that one. The next weeks revealed to me how much of our city had been destroyed, how many lives had been fundamentally changed, and how much our legal community could offer to help people begin putting the pieces back together.

As our Sandy blog series has evidenced, many of the most talented, thoughtful, and hardworking advocates from across the spectrum – large firms, legal services providers, law schools, and more – have dedicated the past year of their professional lives to rebuilding what Sandy destroyed. And in many cases their work has just begun. What particularly excites me is that we’ve taken advantage of so many opportunities to learn from our experiences – conferences, group calls, blogs, and interviews – and are putting them to good use. At Pro Bono Net, we’re fortunate to have an Americorps VISTA volunteer who will spend the next year working to increase our capacity to respond effectively to future disasters. Many other organizations and schools also have VISTAs or similar smart, motivated people dedicated to this work.

These “next-timers” are taking their cues from folks like those profiled here – from their reflections on what worked and what didn’t, from their thoughts on how to do it better. I can’t think of a group I trust more, and it’s been a true privilege for me to work next to them.

About the Series

Pro Bono Net is proud to present this series of interviews reflecting on the legal help provided to victims of Superstorm Sandy in the months following the storm. Our New York-based Program Associate, Jake Hertz, sits down with leaders of the legal relief efforts to get their thoughts on the successes, lessons, and challenges that remain. These themes will also be the subject of an upcoming conference on October 17, co-sponsored by the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, and Pro Bono Net. This blog series, and much of Pro Bono Net’s Sandy work, is made possible through the support of the New York Community Trust.

This week, we are delighted to share our interview with Jennifer Ching of Legal Services NYC.


Jennifer Ching

JH: How did you come to work at Legal Services NYC?

JC: I came to Legal Services NYC in 2010. I had been working as a litigator and then in policy, and really missed being in a community law setting. I also really wanted to work in direct support of advocates—one of the things I liked best about working at a law firm, even, was developing the work of younger attorneys.

JH: And before that what were you doing; what is your background?

JC: I have a background working in civil rights, private practice, immigrants’ rights, and in financial justice. I’m a former community organizer and I’ve loved working with and supporting different communities all my life.

JH: In terms of the communities that QLS typically serves, what were the effects of Sandy and what specific legal services did people need?

JC: We have found a range of evolving legal needs since Sandy. In the initial months, we were focused on providing immediate disaster aid and support. Folks needed necessities—access to food, income security, shelter. The impact of Sandy in Queens was really far-reaching and very devastating. Throughout the City, but particularly in the Rockaways, the storm struck disproportionately at some of our lowest-income communities. The Rockaways, for example, is home to a substantial percentage of New York’s public, subsidized, supportive, and senior housing. So it poses a lot of challenges for disaster-related resiliency; this is a community that had already faced a lot of challenges with respect to Irene evacuations. The storm also struck at a critical corridor of 1-4 family housing throughout Southeast Queens, including areas that flooded or had sewage backup because they are in low-lying neighborhoods.

And, of course, there are a lot of Queens residents who were impacted because they’re low-income workers in industries that closed or laid them off because of transportation or lost profits—these include drivers, home health aides, retail workers, construction workers, and restaurant workers – so it was really felt throughout the entire borough.

Legal needs have evolved since the storm. We’ve seen everything—crises related to needs arising from damaged and lost property, increased evictions, foreclosures, domestic violence-related needs, and long-term employment and unemployment issues.

JH: What were the common legal needs of Queens residents?

JC: When a low-income community is struck by disaster, there are immediate legal needs and a very short window of time to address them properly, which is why I think the emergency response from a legal perspective is really critical. We learned a lot of lessons from Sandy.

First and foremost is shelter and income security – making sure that people have access to ongoing income streams, whether it’s their disability payments or SNAP (food stamps), and making sure they are in safe shelter. Shelter is always the million-dollar question in New York City.

Disasters exacerbate the incredible stresses in individuals’ lives, so the attendant legal needs quickly emerge and involve issues ranging from family and domestic violence to mental health needs to caring for a vulnerable person in the household. There are also great disparities in New Yorkers’ immigration status: many wholly undocumented or mixed-status households felt they were unable, and in many cases were unable, to access many types of aid, were shut out from disaster centers, etc. There is a growing underclass of individuals who are unable to access aid.

JH: Were there a lot of illegal renters and subletters? Who was that was an issue for?

JC: Yes, that’s a huge issue in Queens. A significant percentage of the heavily damaged housing stock was 1-4 family homes; many of these are owned by older families or families of limited means that are unable to afford any repairs and need substantial assistance. In the Rockaways in particular, Sandy struck at neighborhoods that were already among those facing a lot of mortgage distress and foreclosure.

If they’re in foreclosure, homeowners are unable to qualify for a lot of aid programs, so people get stuck in these double binds. Many 1-4 family homes are owned by people who don’t live there – it’s unregulated rental housing – and can’t afford to pay for the repairs, so now they’re just sitting foul.

And you had renters who were unable to qualify for disaster aid because they were in these quote-unquote illegal basement apartments or had other issues.

JH: What do you think are some of the big successes that both QLS and the legal community at large have had post-Sandy?

JC: I would talk about the successes through the lens of co-operative action. I think that one of the great things that came about after the storm was the immediacy and effectiveness of cooperative action between and amongst all of the nonprofit legal services providers as well as the private bar. Within days we were able to start structuring long-term clinics that provided direct legal services to thousands of individuals throughout the city.

It was an interesting combination of political movements and legal services providers who provided knowledge and training, pro bono resources, and manpower. I think some of the successes we had were structural in terms of how the disaster response formed: we quickly advocated for access to disaster sites, and we advocated creating disaster sites – particularly in lower-income communities of color where the federal disaster program had not yet reached and which were not part of the initial priority response.

I also think about policies, how aid was disseminated, and how to make it more accessible and fair. Again, these are all ongoing challenges, but we’ve had some successes along the way. Within days after the storm QLS was on the phone with all of the big banks, with HUD, trying to figure out how to keep homeowners from facing the threat of immediate foreclosure, and we put into place much better policies than had been implemented in Katrina – although from an advocate’s perspective they need to be stronger still, so again that’s an ongoing challenge.

We worked immediately to ensure that people would not be defaulted in various legal proceedings such as housing and civil proceedings, federal administrative proceedings, and HRA re-certifications. It’s about making sure that none of those doors close because one lost check can have devastating consequences for people.

In terms of overall successes, I think the work that we’ve all done in the past 10 months has exposed great deficiencies both in how disaster aid is conceived of and disseminated, and in its accessibility. So I think that there are a lot more challenges to come.

JH: For the legal aid community generally – what could we have been done better? What are some ways the community will be better able to respond if it happens again?

JC: I don’t think of failures, but rather that we’ve gone through a unique experience – worst storm of the century – and unfortunately it seems likely we’ll go through something similar again. So, I think having some sense of infrastructure and institutional memory is really important. I think of the things we were able to put together, like Pro Bono Net’s, and the manual we created to train hundreds of pro bono volunteers, that could become the basis of future information dissemination so that people have a landscape for legal rights post-disaster. Those sorts of things I think will be key.

What remains are the longer-term legal challenges and policy issues that inevitably arise out of a storm: insurance issues, access to FEMA, program restrictions. We’re only at the very beginning of post-storm community recovery; Legal Services is a member of the Citywide Coalition that has been active in calling for transparency and greater inclusion in the community recovery. We’ve weighed in on both the City’s and State’s action plans.

JH: What are the big challenges and issues that you are still seeing 9-10 months out? Or that we’ll see going forward?

JC: I think the big issues are not surprising. It’s incredibly costly to own a home in New York City, and it’s incredibly costly to pay for the repairs necessary to have a home that is resilient for future storms. And the vast majority of people we’ve seen have only just begun to make headway in their competing and very complex claims for insurance and government aid.

When you have these processes that take so long, what you experience within the community is just a further threat and loss to the neighborhood fabric. So, you look at the long-term impact of the failure to move towards economic recovery – the permanent impact on home values and people’s ability to live in safe and healthy communities.

JH: Do you have hope for the Build it Back program to help with these issues?

JC: I think the City has, to its credit, done a very laudable job in trying to move aid quickly and directly to affected communities as the money comes through the federal process. Build it Back – like Rapid Repair – has issues, and one concern we have is that homeowners who are in foreclosure aren’t eligible for Build it Back. If you didn’t qualify for FEMA or your FEMA is still pending, then you’re not able to access all of these other programs. It’s this cascading kind of impact; you’re sort of held in limbo.

I believe one of the biggest challenges is that the City, the State, and the Federal Government have significantly undercounted the number of low-income people affected by the storm. Our job as advocates has been to really make that front and center – to make policymakers understand that, at the end of the day, relying on things like who registered at a disaster relief center and got a FEMA number is not the end-all-and-be-all marker of who was impacted by the storm.

At some point there needs to be a true assessment of need because there is a great disparity between what we read in official documents about who was impacted versus what we see in our offices and know about the communities that were already struggling before. It just doesn’t match.

JH: What do you think are the most important and effective ways for pro bonos to help going forward – both for specific cases and more generally in terms of policy issues?

JC: One of the big challenges that we have to confront is the issue of the pro bono bar not being able to take on long-term insurance and finance-related cases. In a world where financial concerns are increasingly central, low-income people have significant financial needs as well. Their problems are not isolated just to a simple eviction or a domestic violence incident. At the end of the day, low-income people have debt and owe funds to financial institutions, and it’s well-documented that these institutions often treat them very unfairly. These cases are complex and not within the usual purview and training of a legal services attorney – although that is something that the legal services world is trying to change. It’s something where I feel like some engagement from the bar is necessary.

JH: Same question for law students – how can they be used?

JC: We’ve had great experiences with law students. In January, we had about 75 law students canvass and give out legal assessment surveys. We collected 300 responses that were instrumental in carving out how we developed the legal advocacy and how we targeted our limited resources.

In March, we hosted dozens of spring break volunteers from around the country to do intake, client interviews, case development, etc. Law students in the area have interned and been really helpful. And the law schools themselves have been incredibly generous; in many instances they’ve taken on leadership roles themselves.

I think that many infrastructure relationships were created as a result both of the storm and Pro Bono Net’s coordination. They’ll stay in place because storm recovery is a years-long process, and hopefully they will endure and be instantly activated the next time around.

JH: What do you think were the most important lessons, in terms of Sandy and future storm preparation, and how would you want to apply them going forward?

JC: I have to reserve my opinion for long-term advocacy because we’re really just on the tip of that, but I think the most important lesson that I learned is how critical the first few weeks are to any disaster response. We took far too long. A couple of weeks to set up long-term onsite clinics is amazing, but those first two weeks are really key: that’s when people are trying to get their lives back together; that’s when they make critical decisions about going to FEMA or staying with a cousin in New Jersey. You lose people. The community fabric is immediately disrupted. As an example, it wasn’t until almost two weeks after the storm that FEMA opened a site in the Far Rockaways, which is the lowest-income community you’ve heard me talking about. We had to advocate for them to open it. That community really lost an opportunity from the get-go.

The immediate engagement to get people to register for disaster aid and to start thinking about and documenting their needs is incredibly important.







Our segment on NY1.

We are really excited to publicly launch, a website that empowers those who do not have access to a lawyer to create their own concise and well-crafted appeals of FEMA denials. Over 500,000 households in New York and New Jersey applied for emergency assistance from FEMA following Superstorm Sandy – almost half of them have incomes of less than $30,000 per year. Many of these people have been improperly denied benefits they desperately need, but are unable to get a lawyer to guide them through the complicated appeals process.  With substantive help from numerous partners across New York City, and the support of the New York Community Trust, we’ve created a one-stop website for people to learn about the appeals process, create their own appeal, and find further resources.

Over the past months at Pro Bono Net, we’ve put together resources and information to aid pro bono attorneys engaged in helping those whose lives were turned upside down by Superstorm Sandy. We’ve done our best to foster collaboration in the legal relief effort, and it’s been an amazing experience to watch nonprofits, law firms, law schools, bar associations, and corporate counsel come together in unprecedented ways. But for all the resource assembling, conference call convening, webinar producing, live training webcasting, and more that we’ve done, we realize that the legal community simply does not have the capacity to address the needs of so many who are still struggling in Sandy’s wake.

We designed to be straightforward and easy to navigate, getting users straight to the content they need. The front page contains a no fuss description of exactly what the site does – assists individuals to create a FEMA Appeal letter and request their FEMA file.  An FAQ page contains answers drafted by an expert to many common questions, demystifying the appeals process. A calendar of upcoming disaster-relief legal clinics, maintained by our partners at LawHelpNY, lists options for seeking further help across the area.

The heart of the site is the interactive A2J Author® interview that guides users, step-by-step and in everyday language, through assembling the information necessary for an appeal.

And through the magic of technology (i.e., the LawHelp Interactive national online document assembly server), this information is transformed into perfectly formatted Word documents that the user can submit to FEMA.  The whole interview can be completed in 10-15 minutes.





We’re now doing our best to widely promote this resource so that folks across the disaster area are aware. Our press release has gone out to online, print and television media in NY and NJ, and we are now sending it to area boroughs, municipalities, townships, public libraries, and direct social service providers as well. Last week, NY1 (New York City’s 24 hour newchannel) came by to film a segment:

Despite my clear onscreen charisma and talent for pointing at computer monitors, however, someone else got all the airtime.

But it’s all for the same cause, right? Executive Director, Mark O’Brien.

The piece began running April 12, and is available online now We really appreciate all the support we’ve received around this project, and we’re hopeful it will have a big impact. While the site and interview are currently tailored to Superstorm Sandy, they will be easily adaptable for use in future disasters.

After you link on your website, please drop us a line if you have ideas about further ways to get the word out! And thanks!