Puerto Rico and other areas affected by last year’s hurricanes have been in the news prominently in recent months, but what happens when the media spotlight fades? After the cameras are gone, the physical damages remain and rebuilding is an arduous process. Pro Bono Net recognizes the importance of providing access to legal assistance in the wake of natural disasters and works with partners across the country to build innovative solutions to the short and long-term legal needs arising from these events, which disproportionately impact low income and vulnerable communities.

These needs range from housing instability, job loss, loss of important personal documents, as well as issues applying for FEMA aid or being denied by FEMA, that severely complicate the recovery process. As the Louisiana justice community’s experience with Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, it can take up to ten years (sometimes longer) to resolve the range of legal issues that many survivors face after a disaster.

Spotlight on Puerto Rico

Pro Bono Net has been particularly involved in the disaster response effort in Puerto Rico following Hurricane María, which hit the island on starting on September 19, 2017. With the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season in full swing, not only is Puerto Rico still working to rebuild, but communities are preparing for the next disasters to hit.

Though Puerto Rico is facing a variety of issues, in our work with justice community stakeholders in Puerto Rico, we have learned that one of the largest is the disconnect between laws in Puerto Rico and the federal laws that govern the FEMA process. For example, in Puerto Rico houses can be passed down from generation to generation, and the generation in the house at that specific time is considered to own the house. However, according to federal law that house belongs to the person who’s name is officially on the deed.

Other issues include loss of homeownership and other documents that the federal government requires. These documents are easily destroyed by hurricanes and often left behind during evacuations. With roughly 300,000 homes destroyed in the hurricane, numerous foreclosures and evictions, as well as relocations, it is clear that housing in Puerto Rico is a big concern.

In the months after the hurricane, many Puerto Ricans could access services due to a lack of power, cellular service or internet access needed to do so, or an inability to access the physical location of services. Some people are hard to reach if they live far away or if they are hard to get to because of debris and damage. Even now 5% of the population still lacks power and connections are inconsistent. Many individuals faced significant challenges in applying for and appealing FEMA claims, even with multiple extensions, and FEMA’s own records show that nearly 60% of claims filed in Puerto Rico have been denied – double the number following Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

Since October 2017, Pro Bono Net has worked with Ayuda Legal Huracán María, a coalition of justice community organizations s in Puerto Rico and the mainland supporting disaster response efforts. This coalition is led locally by the AyudaLegalPR.org Project Director, Ariadna Godreau-Aubert. AyudaLegalPR.org, Puerto Rico’s first comprehensive online civil legal rights resource, was developed in 2015 through a collaboration between justice community organizations in Puerto Rico and Pro Bono Net, and has had more than 850,000 users to date.

Ayuda Legal Huracán María partners in Puerto Rico are leveraging a dedicated portal on AyudaLegalPR.org to support online and offline outreach to affected communities, including through“brigades” of pro bono attorneys, law students and community organizers who have conducted dozens of disaster legal rights workshops and clinics throughout Puerto Rico. The portal focuses on providing legal information regarding housing issues, insurance claims, unemployment assistance, and much more. Ariadna was a guest speaker at a Pro Bono Net event in March bringing together lawyers, volunteers, nonprofits and other members of the justice community to discuss disaster recovery efforts and the latest challenges facing Puerto Rico. Click here to learn more and view clips of the event. Many other justice community organizations, including Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico, are playing a vital role in helping individuals and communities rebuild and recover.

Pro Bono Net’s Involvement in Broader Disaster Response Efforts

Ensuring that disaster survivors know their rights and legal options in the wake of disaster is the first step to recovery and rebuilding. From 9/11 through Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, Pro Bono Net has been deeply involved in developing and supporting disaster response strategies that leverage online tools and resources to provide meaningful and timely legal assistance for survivors.

In addition to our work with local field programs, in 2008 we co-developed the National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center in partnership with the American Bar Association, LSC, and NLADA. Since 2012, Pro Bono Net has jointly managed this initiative in partnership with Lone Star Legal Aid, one of leading legal aid programs in the disaster response arena. The Resource Center is designed to help those affected by natural disasters rebuild their lives, and serves as a vital support resource for legal aid and pro bono attorneys working to assist those in need of legal help after disasters. The Resource Center also provides information and tools to mobilize and support pro bono attorneys and other legal professionals engaged in disaster response efforts.

This summer, Pro Bono Net also launched a new online Advocacy Center for DisasterLegalAid.org to help network public interest legal advocates working on disaster response issues across regions. Registration is free, and advocates from nonprofit legal aid organizations, bar associations, pro bono counsel from law firms and corporations, law school students and faculty, and allied nonprofits working on disaster legal aid are welcome to join. The Advocacy Center includes a new national listserv, a library of specialized advocacy resources, information about a monthly roundtable series Pro Bono Net is co-hosting through 2018, and more. This was made possible in part by the generous support of the JPB Foundation.

What you can do

If you or someone you know are looking to learn more about your legal rights after a natural disaster or how to prepare for upcoming disasters, click here for more information.

If you are an attorney or other legal professional and are looking to volunteer pro bono and help Puerto Rican communities, please visit www.disasterlegalaid.org/volunteer/ or join the Disaster Legal Aid Advocacy Center. If you are not an attorney but you still want to help, raising awareness is important too. Stay informed and help others become informed as well.