About the Series
Pro Bono Net is proud to present over the next several weeks a 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 relief efforts to get their thoughts on different aspects of the legal community’s response, lessons learned, 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.
To start the series, we are excited to share our interview with Sunny Noh.
Sunny Noh is a Supervising Attorney with the Storm Response Unit (SRU) of the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) where she supervises eight staff attorneys and paralegals in foreclosure, housing, and FEMA benefits as well as provides direct client representation.
JH: Hi Sunny, thanks for meeting today. Can you talk a little about NYLAG in general, as well as your activities around Superstorm Sandy?
SN: NYLAG is a civil legal services agency that has been around since 1990. We’ve grown exponentially over the last several years, and now have about 200 people on staff. Our office is located in the financial district and was flooded during Sandy, so we were temporarily hosted in conference rooms generously donated by various law firms and the UJA Federation of NY, so we were back at work within a week. We immediately began working on Sandy Relief, starting with a few dedicated staff talking with folks in Texas, Louisiana, and other disaster regions to discuss their experiences, and then researching to provide disaster response trainings to pro bono lawyers throughout the city.
We were able to send staff immediately to community agencies in impacted areas with whom NYLAG already had relationships, so we began serving Sandy victims right away. Additionally, we have a mobile legal help center—a legal services office on wheels—that we utilized to go into the affected communities and provide services. We also started a hotline staffed with NYLAG staff and pro bono volunteers.
We originally had three staff members dedicated to Sandy relief, including our director, Ann Dibble. In January we formally launched a Storm Response Unit, and we now have about 30 staff members, including attorneys, paralegals and financial counselors, working in both the city and Long Island. Thanks to our diverse staff, we provide a range of services including disaster benefits, FEMA, and SBA Advocacy; Housing Landlord-tenant advocacy; foreclosure prevention and mortgage relief advocacy; insurance advocacy; and other civil legal assistance. It’s been chaotic, but nine months after the storm we’re happy that we’re able to continue providing services.
JH: So, what initiatives or actions from the legal relief community do you think were really successful?
SN: There was a very strong push amongst NYC legal services providers to have a place at the Recovery Centers. We learned from legal services providers in the Gulf that we would have to fight to have legal aid desks at the centers. I think our effort was successful and clearly demonstrated the importance of legal services in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Our presence signaled to FEMA that legal services should be a key part of the recovery effort. Being on the ground is a necessary element of disaster relief legal services and I am particularly proud of how our legal services community provided it.
JH: Is there a signature project or something that you worked on that you are especially proud of?
SN: I’m really proud of NYLAG’s response with the SRU. I think having staff dedicated to a variety of disaster-related services is important. We have to give a lot of recognition to our generous donors; we received significant grants, including from Robin Hood, The UJA Federation, and the Mayor’s Fund. They all recognized how important it was to provide legal services and to have resources to hire new staff. Consequently, we were able to quickly develop a large Unit, dedicated to Sandy relief work, which has enabled us to react to new and changing issues as they emerge.
I think the SRU is a great model for future disaster relief. All of our staff are general practitioners; they can provide general advice and counsel, but each staff member is dedicated to one area of expertise. The idea is that we all staff sites, we all work on the hotline, and we are all able to provide some advice and counsel, but then we can refer within our unit cases for additional services, including direct representation based on expertise. In this capacity, we are able to represent clients in everything from the insurance mediation program to FEMA appeals to housing court.
JH: What do you think the legal services community could have done better? If/when the next storm happens, what do you hope is a lesson that has been learned from Sandy relief?
SN: New York has a strong legal services community and we were quick to respond, but if we knew then what we do now, our impact could have been far greater; we were all learning for the first time how to navigate disaster relief, benefits, and other issues. Dealing with FEMA has been incredibly challenging, and there is a lot of frustration in the legal services community with how FEMA conducts its business.
New Yorkers didn’t know how to apply for FEMA, so in the immediate aftermath we were teaching people how to apply. Six months out, there were still people who didn’t understand whether they were eligible or had incorrectly been told there were ineligible. For example, we think many more immigrant households could have received FEMA benefits but were unaware that they were eligible or scared to work with a federal agency. If in the future legal services are understood to be an essential part of disaster relief, that would be a big improvement.
Now that we have experience, future disaster responses will be much more coordinated. We know what to expect, what to prioritize, how to assist clients, and what resources we need to ask elected officials and the government for.
JH: Eight to nine months later, what do you think is the role that pro bono attorneys can play? How can they be most useful?
SN: Each month has had different trends. Nine months out, there’s still a significant need, which is a bit disheartening. There is still a lot of need for pro bonos with real estate experience and insurance expertise. One issue that we are seeing is people who either previously or because of Sandy are in mortgage default and are facing foreclosure – we are trying to delay the proceedings so they can qualify for Build it Back or the buy-out program.
We’re seeing more FEMA duplication of benefits denials, which we believe is a signal that we will see a lot more recoupments soon, so assistance in advocacy with recoupments from FEMA would be helpful.
I suspect that there is going to be more need for advocacy as the Build it Back program gets up and running. There is going to be a need for direct advocacy, but also broader advocacy to ensure the program reaches those in need.
We’re also seeing many clients who are having problems with contractors and public adjusters.
JH: Similar question—nine months out, how can law students help?
SN: There are a lot of people who need FEMA advocacy and that is a great opportunity for law students because advocates don’t have to be lawyers, but having legal expertise is helpful.
There are a lot of opportunities for community outreach to educate victims on the relief that they are entitled to. There are still tenants out there who are not getting repairs for Sandy conditions.
I think there are going to be a lot of research opportunities. There are still a lot of issues that we are trying to understand with FEMA; including inconsistent implementation of policies and procedures that seem to have the impact of preventing people from getting the assistance that they are entitled to. Having resources to investigate and ensure that FEMA properly follows its own rules is also necessary.
JH: Is there anything else that you want publicized or want people to be aware of?
SN: We’re lucky in New York to have the legal services community that we do, and resources such as Pro Bono Net that bring people together and create forums for collaboration. The pro bono counsel, legal services, and community organization responses have been really valuable.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be the last time that we’re doing this. In the future we will be much better prepared and ready to act. After the Oklahoma tornadoes, we were in touch with Legal Aid of Oklahoma within days to train their attorneys and offer any assistance we could. Access to legal resources when navigating FEMA is incredibly important and our experience with Sandy has given us a lot of insight into what kind of oversight it needs.
The whole experience has been frustrating at times, but also really gratifying. It has been frustrating to see how difficult it is for people to get assistance, but gratifying to see how legal services and other advocates have been able to come together, reach out, and help these folks.