Last week, Jon Weinberg, the Pro Bono Net and Montana Legal Services Association 2014 AmeriCorps VISTA, completed his year of service. Before he left, we asked Jon a few questions about the past year and what’s next for him. We’ll miss him and we hope you join us in thanking him for his tremendous work over the past year!

Our 2014 VISTA, Jon Weinberg
Jon Weinberg

PBN: What interested you in the VISTA program and in service with Pro Bono Net specifically?

Jon: I became interested in VISTA after I decided to defer law school for a year. I realized I could benefit from working and getting non-academic experience working for a cause or organization I believed in, and VISTA really fit the bill. The Pro Bono Net VISTA opportunity particularly stood out because of PBN’s unique role in utilizing technology to advance access to justice and the opportunity to work with the legal community and learn about the law from a different perspective. Also, my family (like almost everyone in the New York area) was affected by Sandy and I saw the continuing needs and wanted to help with recovery.

PBN: Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on in the past year.

Jon: My projects have revolved around Pro Bono Net’s efforts related to disaster legal services. In New York, I aided PBN’s efforts supporting attorneys responding to Sandy and helped institutionalize a more permanent disaster legal response network following a reception, needs assessment survey, and focus group meetings. I worked with our partners at the Legal Services Corporation to help develop and convene a national advisory group of disaster legal experts to assist legal services responders. For the re-launch of the National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center, www.disasterlegalaid.org, I supported the project team by soliciting information for a pro bono opportunities guide, adapting the previously-developed FEMA appeals tool, creating a toolkit and assisting with design choices and content migration.

PBN: What was your favorite project? Why?

Jon: My favorite project was probably working with attorneys in New York and New Jersey on a more permanent disaster network effort. Although I won’t have a chance to see the network truly come into being, I learned so much from assessing needs in the community and working closely with partners to propose a solution that’s both feasible and helpful. It was very inspiring to learn about the substantial response of the legal community to Sandy and I was honored to have had the opportunity to support efforts to continue collaboration.

PBN: How will your experience help you going forward, both personally and professionally?

Jon: Personally, I learned so, so much from working in a professional setting. I now appreciate how different it is from working in school and that working in an office brings with it very different challenges than those faced in classes and with student organizations. Professionally, I’ve learned that the law functions very differently than it’s advertised, and that lawyers have to take on vast, very different responsibilities in their line of work than I would have otherwise expected. The justice gap is very real, and the leap to bridge it requires great strength and determination on the part of lawyers who undertake the challenge.

PBN: What will you miss most about your year at Pro Bono Net?

Jon: I’ll probably most miss getting to work with the program team! It’s really an incredible group. I do look forward to keeping up our gChat conversations though! I’ll also miss being in New York and working at an organization that brings so many attorneys together and supports so many different exciting initiatives nationally. You really do learn something new every day here!

PBN: What are you doing next?

Jon: I’ll be starting law school next month! I’m now much more attuned to the challenges faced by attorneys who want to do good, both from legal services and the private bar, but I’ve also been inspired by those I’ve worked with this year who have been able to help people through the law (also through both legal services and the private bar.)

PBN: What is one, totally non-legal related factoid, you learned from your time here?

Jon: I can now say unequivocally that Gregory’s Coffee is unparalleled in Midtown Manhattan! And that soccer is underappreciated by most Americans (thanks Adam, Kevin, Jake, and Mark!)

In addition to developing new tools, sites, and solutions to increase access to justice, Pro Bono Net looks for ways to grow and adapt its programs to match evolving needs and leverage new technology. In that vein, over the past few months PBN Program Director Liz Keith and I have been hard at work with partners at Lone Star Legal Aid, the American Bar Association, the Legal Services Corporation, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, and Texas Legal Services Center to re-launch the National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center at DisasterLegalAid.org. Working on the site has been one of my primary projects this year as a VISTA at Pro Bono Net supporting the organization’s work around disaster legal services. The re-launched site has some great new features, and working on the re-launch was an instructive experience.

The re-launched site builds upon successful web-based efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has been active since 2009. The three main portals for different core audiences (people in need of help, legal aid professionals, and pro bono volunteers) remain, and each portal includes relevant resources, guides, explanations, and links. For example, people in need of legal help can consult links on methods of assistance while legal aid professionals can use a checklist to guide them through establishing post-disaster operations. The site additionally continues to feature disaster-specific pages with the latest information on deadlines, hotlines, and specific assistance available.

All of that content is greatly enhanced by the re-launched site’s design. The new design is visually appealing and better facilitates navigation through the portals, with images from actual disaster response efforts supplied by LSC and others working in the field after disasters. The colors were selected to make the site more accessible to those who are visually impaired and all images now have associated text. Perhaps most excitingly, the new design is mobile-responsive. Mobile responsiveness is especially important because smartphones are increasingly being used to access information after disasters.

New features and content complement the improved design. A dedicated version of the National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide allows prospective pro bono attorneys to immediately identify how they can help after a disaster. The site also features a FEMA appeals tool, powered by LawHelp Interactive, which allows a survivor of any FEMA-declared disaster to easily appeal an adverse FEMA assistance decision. Legal services attorneys with questions about disaster response can use the site to submit queries to the Disaster Legal Aid National Advisory Group.

I had no idea how much work would go into the re-launch. Pro Bono Net and Lone Star Legal Aid, the project lead, worked diligently with a national stakeholder committee and web designer for months to make this vision a reality. For the new tools and features, we solicited disaster pro bono opportunities nationally and modified a FEMA appeals tool Pro Bono Net developed in 2013 for use by survivors of Superstorm Sandy. In addition, Lone Star Legal Aid led a content coalition of disaster legal services experts charged with identifying, curating and posting new content for the site, and quickly added resources about new disasters as they were declared by FEMA and shared news items about disaster legal response efforts. The re-launch effort was supported with funding from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grant program.

When all was said and done, everything paid off. I’m very excited to join Pro Bono Net and our partners in publicizing the re-launched site and I hope it will play an important role in disaster legal response efforts. I am happy that in the future survivors and attorneys alike will have a central online hub – for survivors to access legal resources that can help them rebuild and recover, and for attorneys and advocates to better serve survivors and get them the access to justice they deserve.

Non-profits and legal services organizations have come to recognize the importance of social media and many now have well-developed social media strategies implemented by staff experts. That being said, disaster response brings with it special considerations for every facet of an organization’s operations and social media is no exception.

In order to assist legal services providers, Wilneida Negrón and Leah Margulies of LawHelpNY recently hosted a webinar entitled “Tips on Using Social Media for Disaster Recovery.” Drawing upon lessons from their response to Sandy, Wilneida and Leah outlined how social media can play different, important roles in disaster response and how the role an organization chooses to play inevitably dictates the content they post.

Wilneida and Leah demonstrated how different social media platforms serve different functions in disaster response

Wilneida and Leah began the webinar by reviewing LawHelpNY’s response to Sandy through their blog and Facebook and Twitter accounts. Immediately after Sandy, they began posting resources, contacts, and assistance information for New Yorkers. News outlets, blogs, and others recognized LawHelpNY as a central repository for Sandy legal relief information, and LHNY’s posts enjoyed high viewership and virality. To spread the lessons of their experience, Wilneida and Leah published a toolkit on “Leveraging Social Media and SEO for Online Disaster Outreach.”

Wilneida and Leah used the lessons from their Sandy response to help viewers begin thinking about their social media role in disaster response. Many of the webinar attendees indicated their organizations would likely pursue a passive role, like LawHelpNY did, whereby they would broadcast and disseminate information.

That being said, the webinar also highlighted possibilities for active content and engagement, through proactive data collection and public responses to create situational awareness. Wilneida and Leah featured some of the myriad social networking platforms and guided viewers through creating visualized, aggregated, and personal content that would be useful for a collaborative, planned disaster response effort. They stressed the importance of fact checking, especially after a disaster.

The webinar ended with reminders of best practices in creating post-disaster social media content

Having used their Sandy response to illustrate and explain how organizations could share useful content over social media post-disaster, Wilneida and Leah concluded by helping viewers think about developing a social media strategy. They encouraged organizations to plan ahead by analyzing their networks and pages to evaluate their social media presence, content, and plans. Wilneida and Leah also detailed how organizations can better manage and disseminate the barrage of social media information they receive through listening dashboards and by testing shareable content, and finally time-lined three phases of disaster-related content to share: crisis preparedness, crisis response, and disaster recovery.

I’m excited to apply the lessons from the webinar as I help with disaster legal response efforts. Even with my personal experience with Facebook and Twitter, I am now much more cognizant of how organizational social media strategies must be unique to the disaster context. When the inevitable next disaster strikes, I hope the resources we develop will be easily and quickly shared via effective social media dissemination.

 

On Friday, February 21st I broke from my normal office routine and headed up to Fordham Law School for the annual Fordham Environmental Law Review Symposium, which this year was titled “Eye of the Storm: Hurricane Sandy Response and Rebuilding Strategies.” The panels at the Symposium demonstrated an emphasis on addressing the systemic problems Sandy illuminated with long-term policy changes that will lessen the level of inequality in the response to future disasters.

Fordham Law School

I expected the forum would be too legal and technical for me to fully understand, but was pleasantly surprised to find much of the discussion practical and relatable to anyone with an interest or background in Sandy issues. Three panels – on the community vulnerabilities Sandy exposed, governance and compensation, and reducing vulnerability while increasing resilience – followed a keynote address by Bruch College adjunct professor and New York State Assembly candidate Cory Evans.

Evans focused his address on the tension between recognizing the need to immediately respond to a disaster with the desire to establish a proper process for relief administration. In the first panel, attorneys and advocates highlighted how Sandy was particularly damaging to groups such as the disabled and public housing residents and how decision-making failed to include community input, while Loyola University and Tulane University professor Robert Verchick demonstrated the large body of evidence showing patterns in how disasters disproportionally affect certain groups.

The second panel focused on how present taxation, disaster management, and insurance systems could be modified to allow for a more equal response to disasters on behalf of all populations. In the third panel, attorneys and academics involved with Sandy response proposed deeper information sharing by non-profits, a series of improvements to New York City’s Build It Back program, a program to subsidize home elevations, modifications to federal disaster programs, and the inclusion of more alternative dispute resolutions.

Many New York homeowners and renters still have yet to rebuild from the storm

Unsurprisingly, many of the same issues were also addressed at the Disaster Lawyering Post-Sandy Conference co-hosted by Pro Bono Net, The Legal Aid Society and the City Bar Justice Center this past October. In October, I was just familiarizing myself with the myriad legal issues clients, pro bono, and legal services attorneys have faced related to Sandy. Thus, I was surprised when panelists at that conference highlighted inequalities in Sandy’s impact and with the effects of recovery programs. I was also first learning about insurance complications, the different recovery programs, and all of the various bureaucratic difficulties Sandy survivors faced in rebuilding. At Fordham, I noticed many of the same themes outlined and the same continuing problems that the attorneys and advocates were working to address.

However, I did notice a glaring difference between what I heard in October at the New York City Bar Association and the panels at the Symposium. While much of October’s discussion focused on service delivery and how lawyers could better respond to disasters, the speakers now proposed policy and programmatic responses. The speakers were not ignoring the continuing problems and need for services, and many are working full-time on cases and advocacy related to more immediate responses, but there was also an increasing recognition that now is the time to start thinking about addressing the underlying problems that led to the disproportionate effects of Sandy.

Cory Evans, the keynote speaker at the Fordham Symposium, noted that the serious, vexing, and fundamental policy questions about disaster response should not be asked during a disaster but rather in advance. At Fordham, the Sandy legal responders demonstrated that they are not only thinking about Sandy response but also about the fundamental policy questions regarding the inevitable next disaster. Similarly, at Pro Bono Net we are preparing for the future by institutionalizing the knowledge and collaborative processes developed in the legal services and pro bono community during Sandy relief, without ignoring continuing needs. Hopefully, together we can make long-term progress.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA member, I work on projects designed to increase the capacity of attorneys and advocates who provide disaster legal assistance. Thus, with few exceptions, I work more with attorneys and advocates than with the disaster victims themselves. On the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service organized by the Corporation for National and Community Service, however, I had the opportunity to join fellow VISTA members in doing community service. So, instead of spending this past Monday in the office, I joined VISTAs from the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island and volunteers from All Hands Volunteers to work in a residential basement damaged by Superstorm Sandy. The experience led me to reconsider my preconceived notion of the relationship between direct and indirect service.

The VISTA and All Hands volunteers took time during their lunch break to pose for a photo. Courtesy of the Long Island Volunteer Center.

Prior to Superstorm Sandy, the homeowner’s son ran a personal training business out of the basement. Submerged under 6 feet of water, the basement and all of the gym equipment were completely destroyed. While a contractor initially replaced the walls, they quickly became re-infested with mold. All Hands Volunteers offered to rebuild the basement, with their corps of full-time volunteers and day-to-day participants like me.

While I admittedly had zero building and construction experience (save for assembly of the Ikea variety), the All Hands site supervisor made sure to assign tasks we could complete, provide ample instruction and supervision, and pair us to make the work social and collaborative. The day’s work consisted of preparing, installing, and securing drywall and cement backer boards, which are the foundation of home interior walls. Volunteers were broken into teams that prepared, installed, and secured the wall materials.

My partner Charnelle and I spent the day inspecting and fastening the studs that keep cement backer board solidified and in place. Cement board is a water and mold resistant alternative to drywall. With both drywall and cement backer board, the screws keeping the boards in place have to be depressed below the surface before finishing and paint can be applied. So, Charnelle and I went around the basement armed with power drills, triangles, a T-square and pencils, checking every single screw on each installed piece of cement backer board. Other than a hand cramp from continual use of the power drill, I came away unscathed, albeit still without much construction skill.

An All Hands volunteer at work. Courtesy of the Long Island Volunteer Center.

Over the course of the day, I had the opportunity to converse with the All Hands volunteers and learn about their direct service. I left the house having made a tangible impact in a Sandy victim’s recovery – the cement backer boards I helped install will be the foundation of the finished basement walls. While it is sometimes difficult to leave the office and easily conjure the faces of people who benefit from the resources I am developing, I came away from my day of service having met someone who I definitively helped. To say the work was rewarding and of the utmost importance would be an understatement.

Direct service produced clear and palpable results that made it easy to see the impact my work had on Sandy victims, especially with the homeowner watching. It felt great to personally assist a Sandy victim. Still, I came away from my day of service feeling just as strongly about the importance of my VISTA service as I did on my first day. I had an enhanced appreciation of how vital both my efforts and those of the All Hands volunteers are to New York’s Sandy recovery.

I had assumed that direct services and capacity-building services were the front and back office of a giant non-profit machine; I now understand that the relationship isn’t so simple. We perform fundamentally different, yet equally important roles.

The All Hands volunteers help victims literally rebuild their lives after a disaster, and as a VISTA I can help make that rebuilding as easy and rapid as possible. For example, as I was working on the basement, I thought: “Why did mold return so quickly after a contractor initially reconstructed the walls? Was the contractor licensed? Did the homeowner have the necessary legal advice and knowledge to make the right rebuilding, insurance, and aid application decisions?” At Pro Bono Net, I am helping create resources that address these very questions and facilitate the provision of legal services to disaster victims.

Thanks to my participation in the MLK Day of Service, I now realize that there isn’t a yin-and-yang relationship between direct service and capacity building. All Hands Volunteers and Pro Bono Net don’t interact with each other or have the same deliverables, clients, or perspectives, but are both broadly engaged in disaster recovery. Each organization’s unique means of helping disaster victims are equally important and indicative of varied skills, backgrounds, and responses to different victim needs more so than a desire to be the front office or back office on recovery efforts. In our different ways and in our fundamentally different offices, we are serving the countless victims struggling to rebuild over a year after Superstorm Sandy.

 

As we close out our reflections on Superstorm Sandy, we conclude with a note from Executive Director, Mark O’Brien. We extend our thanks to our partners who continue to work to help those affected by the storm and to our supporters for your generosity. And for those looking to help, we encourage you to join in the race!

A year ago Wednesday, I awoke early, and fumbled to turn on the radio for news that would help me take stock of what I assumed had been a “once in a lifetime” storm on our city.  Unlike far too many New Yorkers, my family was fortunate to live in a neighborhood that largely escaped Sandy’s full impact; saved by an accident of topography.

But as the intervening months have made painfully clear, it is likely that the coastal regions of the Northeast will face similar threats sooner than we once imagined.  And Sandy, like other natural and man-made emergencies before her, revealed that the impact follows not only topographical lines on the map, but deeply entrenched social, economic and racial fault lines that govern how individuals and communities access our city’s shared wealth and resources.  One year later, those lines continue to impede the truly heroic efforts of the legal community to help individuals and communities recover and re-build.  As one of our Gulf Coast partners told us early on when sharing lessons from Katrina, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Thinking back to the day after Sandy hit, I remember our community’s first, tentative steps on that marathon – exchanges of emails, texts, and phone calls to our staff and then to friends in other organizations, checking on how they fared – and then moving almost immediately to talking about organizing a collective response.

Within a week, we began to gather in person, and on regular conference calls where those organizing efforts locally, and from across the country, could share challenges, solutions, strategize on next steps, vent frustrations, and even laugh and enjoy a fellowship born of common purpose.

It was in this moment that that we learned that the marathon could also be a relay race.  Gulf coast veterans of Katrina joined us (sometimes over phone lines and sometimes literally).  Disaster legal aid experts from Texas, Louisiana and Florida also pitched in to run legs.  And, of course, we’ve passed the baton among ourselves.

Pro Bono Net’s own efforts to support this work comes from our experience dealing with the challenge of scaling legal services in times of emergent need. We know technology and collaboration can overcome barriers to justice. Time and again, in the wake of the nation’s largest crises, including 9/11, Katrina, and the foreclosure crisis, Pro Bono Net enabled individual organizations to work more effectively and collectively to meet challenges.

Wednesday morning I dialed in as a facilitator on what has become our monthly Sandy call. The work (and sharing) goes on.  A staff lawyer from The Legal Aid Society shared a favorable outcome obtained in an insurance mediation by pro bono lawyers from Covington … who were prepared by pro bono volunteers from Jones Day … and they had all been mentored by the insurance expert at Legal Services NYC.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve showcased the tremendous work of our partners on our blog, Connecting Justice Communities, through a weekly Sandy Series. We’ve taken the time at the end of this series to reflect on the themes that emerged and to share our own lessons learned. I’d like to share that with you and invite you to comment with your own impressions on the race to date or priorities on the road ahead.

One thing is clear – the challenges we face are steep, particularly for New York’s lowest income and most marginalized – immigrants, the elderly, and those with diminished capacity. More runners are needed.  If you are a lawyer, you’ve got the right shoes.  Some of the work will be directly related to Sandy; other, equally important work, will help expose and repair the underlying injustices that prevent many New Yorkers from fully participating in society.  Unless we address that, it won’t matter how prepared we are; our most vulnerable neighbors will again bear the brunt.

If you are already running, thank you, and we’ll look for you on the course. If you’re still on the sidelines, this is the time.  On this anniversary, don’t only remember the storm.  Remember the feeling you had on the morning after … you were outraged by what you saw … you wanted to help … you believed you could make a difference.  You can.  It’s not as hard as you think. As the tag line goes, Just Do It! 

 If you need help finding the starting line, or are looking for a baton ready to be passed on, I invite you to visit us online at the NYC Pro Bono Center.

Mark O’Brien | Executive Director | Pro Bono Net

 

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
FEMAappeals.org

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 FEMAAppeals.org – 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 FEMAAppeals.org 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 tomorrow’s Disaster Lawyering Conference, 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 Victor Tello of the City Bar Justice Center.

Interview

Victor Tello

JH: How did you come to work at the City Bar?

VT: My first job out of law school was with the Office of the Corporation Counsel where I worked for four years doing state and federal litigation. I came to the Justice Center in January of 2013 to work on the Sandy Disaster Assistance Project out of a desire to work in public interest.

JH: What do you think have been the biggest successes in Sandy legal relief work?

VT: I think the initial outpouring of support from the legal services community, including the private bar, was a significant step in providing the type of assistance that Sandy victims needed. The City Bar Justice Center helped train approximately 250 attorneys in the weeks following the storm, and that momentum has carried through a significant portion of the disaster recovery process.

As far as specific victories, one example I can give is the proof of loss issue. The proof of loss form is a document through the National Flood Insurance Program that requires policyholders to itemize their damage. Initially, the deadline for this form was two months after Hurricane Sandy; it was later extended to a year. The legal services community realized this timeline was unrealistic for many, so we started actively working to address it on two fronts: first, trying (and succeeding) to get a further extension; second, learning how to complete the forms and to assist policyholders who were unable to do so on their own. The Justice Center organized two insurance roundtables and invited experts in the field to help with this effort.

JH: As the organizer of the insurance roundtables, can you talk a little about the role they’ve played?

VT: The impetus for the insurance roundtables was that the legal services community was feeling behind the curve in regards to a lot of insurance issues. In normal times, the typical legal services client does not have insurance issues. And, while the Justice Center’s role as a pro bono organization is to place low-income clients with pro bono attorneys for legal representation, most of the big firms represent insurance companies, and this conflict made matching Sandy clients with insurance issues with attorneys a difficult process.

We started thinking outside the box about ways that we could provide some type of assistance to victims. The Justice Center established monthly roundtables to advance the knowledge base of the nonprofit legal services community by bringing the legal community together with experts in the field to discuss and learn about arising issues in an informal setting. We felt that getting everyone in the room and providing clarity on these insurance issues was one of the best ways to help our clients. The roundtables gave advocates a venue to ask questions and discuss issues they know less about; they have been a place where people can learn as much as possible about these issues. The evaluations and the responses that we’ve received have been amazing.

JH: Have pro bonos been helpful in the roundtables in terms of providing background knowledge?

VT: Yes. They were extremely helpful with regard to training on these issues. One firm provided an insurance expert at one of the initial trainings back in November, which was incredibly helpful in providing general and basic insurance information immediately after the storm.  Another firm held a webinar on homeowners insurance and flood insurance, which also was incredibly helpful. A lot of knowledge that we have been able to develop came from these presentations and through discussions with pro bono attorneys.

JH: Can you talk a little bit about what you think the legal services community could have done better, and what lessons we can apply if this happens again?

VT: As far as what could have been done better, a big issue we have confronted was the timing in regards to when the legal community can become involved in disaster relief. There is this idea that, immediately after a disaster, the sole focus should be humanitarian relief. However, many of the issues that we’ve seen stem from the fact that, immediately after the storm, people were so involved in dealing with humanitarian needs that they kind of let other things lapse. This is especially true for insurance cases. People did not file their claims on time or preserve their insurance policies. Furthermore, they did not focus on keeping the detailed documentation that was needed when they eventually filed their insurance claims. This also occurred when Sandy victims started reconstruction and they didn’t seek out licensed contractors, but rather found the first contractor available, or they did not sign formal contracts that would offer protection when conflicts arose.

So there is a major role for legal advice immediately after a storm. However, it’s necessary to be able to organize, synthesize, and present that advice in a much more streamlined and efficient manner because, immediately following a disaster, there’s just so much going on.

JH: Are there messages that the community needs to be giving people proactively? Document what happens, have a camera, understand your policy, etc.?

VT: Absolutely. On a basic level – people need to have insurance. Many individuals had no flood insurance whatsoever. It was something that never crossed their mind or, in particularly sad situations, they had flood insurance up until a couple of years or months before the storm and chose for financial reasons to cut it off. For those that had insurance, the legal community must convey to policyholders the importance of knowing what one’s insurance covers, what one needs to do to make a claim, and what documents one needs to substantiate that claim.

Unfortunately, there are many vulnerable groups, including the elderly and non-English speakers who may not receive these messages or heed this advice. For example, some elderly individuals who have owned their homes in these lower-income areas didn’t have flood insurance because they couldn’t afford it on the social security or other benefits they depend on for income.

JH: What are the main issues and challenges that CBJC is still seeing and trying to serve?

VT: Insurance denials are still a significant concern. That is something that is probably going to continue for a while. In cases where the insurance denials are significant and there’s enough conflict with the insurance company so that litigation may be necessary, these cases could lag on for several years.

As far as FEMA assistance, there are significant concerns with gaps in regards to where and when people were able to receive assistance; this is something we’ve tried to address directly with FEMA. Fortunately, FEMA has spoken with the legal services community about our experience on the ground filling out the applications and making appeals when applications were denied. This communication allowed FEMA to see where things worked and where they didn’t, which has been helpful. We really appreciate that FEMA opened itself up to getting feedback from the legal services community.

Another area that is becoming more pronounced is home improvement contractor disputes. As the recovery continues, this is going to continue to be a significant problem. Sometimes people felt that getting an unlicensed contractor would be the best or fastest way to repair their homes, and other times there just weren’t enough licensed contractors due to high demand.

We have a lot of people who wound up working with contractors who are not licensed with the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). These unlicensed contractors many times engaged in questionable business practices and sometimes committed outright fraud against these vulnerable Sandy victims.

JH: On these issues and in terms the of longer-term phase of the recovery, what are the ways that you think pro bono attorneys can be most helpful?

VT: I’m continuing to work with and manage a lot of pro bono attorneys who are getting very positive results. At this point, I think our highest recovery was around $75-80K – that was for a family with a flood insurance dispute. And then many smaller cases: for example, $5,000 to repair a roof so that it won’t leak during the winter. The amount of help that has come in through pro bono attorneys taking on these cases has really been phenomenal.

Having the law firms provide basic advice and information, or holding seminars, workshops, webinars – that is incredibly helpful and is an area where we could probably use more help in the future. The 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.

JH: How do you think law students can be most helpful to both providers and victims?

VT: The City Bar Justice Center did work with some law students doing research on home improvement contractor disputes/fraud issues. We held a clinic back in the spring; a group of law students from the University of Southern California were doing an alternative spring break, so they reached out to me and wanted to know what they could do to help out. At the time, I was working on a handbook that would give homeowners information about what to do when they had conflicts with home improvement contractors.

We set up a daylong clinic where the law students researched New York law and the agencies available to help homeowners. The amount of information and raw data that they provided was really helpful in writing this contractor handbook, which I hope will go a long way in helping people and making them better informed when they deal with contractors.

I know in other situations law students have also assisted on individual grant applications for funds available directly to Sandy victims. With oversight from attorneys, students can sit down and conduct interviews, determine eligibility, and help people complete forms.

JH: Could you briefly expand on the handbook? I’ve heard other people mention it.

VT: The handbook came from a manual created in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. We found out that after Katrina vulnerable population groups were being taken advantage of by contractors, so a legal services group there created a basic manual on how to deal with those situations.

We were able to get a copy of that manual, and we updated it with New York law. It turns out that New York law is a lot more complicated than Louisiana law – there are a lot more agencies involved and a lot more minutia that has to be covered. So we’re trying to address all of these different issues and synthesize everything down into an accessible guidebook that a layperson can read, understand, and use to effectively improve his or her situation when dealing with a dispute with a contractor.

JH: Where do you hope to go from here, both for Sandy recovery and future disaster prevention generally?

VT: I think future efforts could focus on preventing a lot of the problems that we’ve encountered: making people understand that they need to buy insurance if they are able to do so and that they need to have documentation ready in case they do actually suffer damage.

It’s also necessary to have a legal services community ready to solve some of the issues as they develop. We need to learn from our Sandy experiences so that, when this happens again, we can be prepared in regards to dealing with the issues that we’ve already seen.

At the same time, no two disasters are alike. The next disaster will be different; there will be different issues and we have to be prepared to change, evolve, and meet the demands that are going to exist. So we have to learn from what we have now, but at the same time be flexible enough to address the changing needs of the community.

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.

Interview

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 FEMAAppeals.org, 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.

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 the Tashi Lhewa and Young Lee of The Legal Aid Society.

Interview

Tashi Lhewa

JH: How did you guys come to work at LAS, what brought you here, what’d you do before?

TL: My name is Tashi Lhewa, I’m a consumer staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, and I’ve been here for four years. After Sandy hit, I was temporarily a Sandy attorney,

YL: I’m Young Lee and I’ve been with LAS since 2006. I originally was a housing attorney, doing landlord-tenant work in the Bronx. After Sandy happened, watching the news and seeing what I could do as a lawyer, I was very interested in getting involved, so I applied to for the Sandy attorney position.

JH: Does the housing experience help with Build it Back and housing issues from Sandy?

YL: It definitely helps because a lot of Sandy clients are renters. The Build it Back program has more to do with homeowners and, luckily, LAS has a very good foreclosure unit, so I can go around the office and ask questions about mortgage forbearance and other homeowner issues.

TL: One of the main strengths of LAS is the diversity and the size of our practices. After Sandy hit we provided comprehensive legal assistance – consumer, foreclosure, benefits, family law – whatever help people needed, we provided. That was something we took pride in doing.

We also have great partnerships with large firms through our pro bono unit. Marlene Halpern, Emily Borman, Lou Sartori – our pro bono unit here – did great work, especially around the DHS Interim Placement Program hotel lawsuit. In that case, we worked with Weil Gosthal to sue the City to prevent them from evicting those who lost their permanent housing from the hotels. The City’s position was “they can go through the shelter system.” The problem is we’ve seen people do that and get denied. The suit is ongoing; we were able to successfully get a preliminary injunction at the end of May.

On the topic of partnerships, I want to mention one more thing: our work with community organizations was incredibly helpful. Organizations such as Market Community Corporation out in Far Rockaway – they were right there. We were able to build on our relationships with them to get to the clients and victims who needed help.

Young Lee

YL: Those relationships were especially helpful in the immediate aftermath. The Robin Hood Foundation funded a Mobile Justice Unit – a giant RV. With the Mobile Justice Unit we were able to get to Far Rockaway and provide a lot of assistance. In the beginning, Tashi was going out there all the time. The people out there couldn’t get anywhere else. Luckily, we were able to go out there and do intake and help as many people as we could.

TL: It was huge; being there where we were needed, instead of telling people to come see us. We had workshops; we had clinics in all the affected neighborhoods — Coney Island, Far Rockaway. The key thing in the immediate aftermath and what was heartening was we had Legal Aid attorneys from various practices and offices all donating their own time to go out and do intake.

YL: And this was while our main office at 199 Water was flooded, so there was a bit of crisis mode internally, but even then we were able to do stuff, which was incredible. That had a lot to do with our leadership and the strength of our employees, and the fact that a lot of our members are from these neighborhoods.

JH: What do you think are the lessons that should be learned form Sandy and the response? What was most challenging; where weren’t we able to provide as you would have liked?

YL: One thing that I don’t think almost any of the legal services community was prepared for was the breadth of the storm. Taking the discrete example of homeowners, it would have been great to do workshops and flyer the flood zones with legal information such as “always make sure your contractor is licensed” – all the different problems really could fit on one page.

TL: Having relationships with other entities and agencies is key. I think of all the problems with FEMA and the various agencies – in the immediate aftermath, when the need is the greatest and you want to assist people — those relationships needed to already be in place.

YL: Frankly, we had enough people to deploy on the ground between us and the pro bono lawyers, but they would get there and then have nothing to do. They would still be helpful, but there were logistic and infrastructure issues. Thinking about what happens when phone lines go down, having a certain amount of PDAs, iPads, maps, etc. Internal logistics is crucial in disaster situations.

JH: 8-10 months later, what are the big issues that you still see people facing?

YL: There are still homeowners battling insurance companies. Many homeowners who don’t think they’ve gotten the insurance relief they’re entitled to.. For example, they got insurance money, but the contractor isn’t doing a good job, or the contractor asks for more money. Seeing what’s covered and what’s not covered. And then the people who are in flood zone areas, in which the flood zone elevation requirements have changed – we get a lot of questions on that, particularly regarding Build it Back.

On the renters’ side, I’m concerned about the bigger-picture potential loss of low-income housing in these areas, and whether or not it’s going to be replaced. The people who got displaced form these low-income neighborhoods – they are pretty much going to be renters and for many people these places have been their homes their entire lives.

TL: Especially with our renter clients who are the lowest low-income people. They were already in a precarious situation prior to Sandy and now you have someone who is homeless and I think the City and other agencies really need to not just say “here’s your voucher, go find a place.”

YL: The voucher is only two years, which is really not that long to get back on your feet.

TL: And the fact that they have a voucher is no guarantee that they’ll find something that’s affordable. With the hotel populations – they’re trying to get them out as fast as possible, and the people are looking, but they can’t find a place.

YL: Unfortunately for that client population, it is frankly true that as people leave, the most capable leave first. The people who need the most help are going to take longer to find a place, and those are the people about whom the City says, “we’ve finally done a good enough job, we don’t have to help these people.” But those are the people who need the most help! Some have undiagnosed mental issues, some are physically disabled, some are just not that sophisticated clients — but for some reason the City can’t seem to bother with them.

And that attitude worries me for the rebuild. If they’re taking that sort of attitude towards these individual, actual people that they can see and hear, then they’re obviously not going to be thinking about these people in the big picture.

JH: On these issues and going forward, how can law students be effective volunteers and advocates?

TL: At this stage, one thing that’s going to be really important is outreach: education on Sandy issues and future preparation. We’ve had two storms in two years; I think it’s really important to go out to the communities at risk, do outreach and hold educational information sessions.

YL: I think law students could really help with education on insurance in general. Even the sophisticated layperson will have difficulty trying to figure out what the policies say. With a certain amount of training, law students can absorb this information and go out to communities and educate the homeowner population in lay language on these issues.

As far as advocacy purposes, there are definitely still certain instances where law students can be direct advocates. Let’s say with public assistance and public benefits and welfare; dealing with welfare centers. You don’t have to be a lawyer to represent these people at Fair Hearings.

JH: Same question for pro bono attorneys. How can they be helpful?

YL: Weil Gotshal was great – they took every FEMA appeal case that came through because at the beginning it was just Tashi and he couldn’t do all of them. Weil took tons of them.

TL: They made a commitment that all of their associates would take one case.

YL: What was great about Weil was they didn’t base it solely out of New York. If they couldn’t find a New York associate, they’d send it to another office. That was a good thing about FEMA appeals – you could do it remotely.

TL: Speaking generally, I think that pro bono attorneys are a great resource. We look for people that have at least background training and basic understandings of legal procedure and due process – that’s crucial for most things, even with administrative appeals.

YL: Now it’s a lot of insurance issues. Mostly we are working with pro bono attorneys who are not necessarily saying they’ll litigate against insurance companies, but at least advocate on behalf of our clients. There is value from the insurance company seeing a law firm’s letterhead.

The reason that pro bono attorneys are especially helpful in these cases is there’s a certain amount of training and esoteric knowledge you need for them. Also, having a less emotional perspective. A lot of clients can do the basics and document everything, but then there’s an issue of sometimes a client is just too close to it. This is their home, they get emotional and its better to just have a second pair of eyes looking over something.

JH: Where do you hope to go from here with Sandy and future disaster relief?

YL: The biggest thing is to continue helping the people who were directly affected. My worry about that is that there are problems out there that we don’t even know about; so trying to identify them.

Also, there are issues with a lot of people in Queens who live in illegal apartments, basement apartments, apartments that weren’t up to code – a lot of those people had a difficult time getting help because they couldn’t get proof of their residence. How we can better help those people is something I want to think about for future storms.

Another concern is monitoring the Build it Back program and making sure all of this federal money is spent in a way that’s not just going to favor business interests. The program is specific to homeowners, but I think they’re using a lot of the money to help business interests. We want to make sure that at least some of that money goes to the actual client population — especially the low-income and most vulnerable New Yorkers.

We’ve done a lot of internal thinking as well – making sure that we’re prepared for the next storm. Looking at how we’re going to mobilize internally; having an action plan with clear, written guidelines. Sandy was somewhat ad hoc.

And then looking externally, trying to advocate with politicians and legislators to pass better laws on things like mortgage forbearance. And then educating the public would be another big part. Educating people about insurance and legal preparation for disasters. People know that they should have a certain amount of bottled water in their house, food, etc.; we need to educate them in the same way about legal prep. For example, having a working camera with a battery to take pictures of damaged property in case you have to throw it out.

TL: I agree with everything that Young said. Another key is transparency. Encourage transparency with all the parties that are involved: Federal agencies, state, local. I think that’s key and something that was really missing. Intentional or not there were huge issues with transparency, which caused a lot of problems for people looking for assistance.