A man clears debris near his home in Frederiksted in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, hit hard by Hurricane Maria.
A man clears debris near his home in Frederiksted in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, hit hard by Hurricane Maria. Jonathan Drake/Reuters

The Louisiana Civil Justice Center, a legal hotline set up after Katrina, will coordinate the pro bono effort to get legal advice to hurricane victims in U.S. territories.

Right now, the millions of victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands are focused on finding water, food, electricity, and working cellular phone service. But soon many will be looking for another service in spades: lawyers.

More than 30 residents of U.S. Virgin Islands have already placed desperate calls to lawyers on the mainland asking for help, for example, because their landlords have threatened eviction, says Jonathan Rhodes, executive director of the Louisiana Civil Justice Center. Some of those apartments may not even be inhabitable.

“That’s the emergency,” Rhodes says. “We frantically have to find attorneys on the ground in Virgin Islands, who are themselves trying to rebuild their homes and offices and communities, and ask them to step in and help these people.”

As the nation’s only permanent disaster-focused legal aid center in the country, the Louisiana Civil Justice Center is serving as the main point of emergency legal contact for U.S. territories. The center is bracing for a surge of calls from residents seeking legal advice on everything from family law to consumer protections.

The Louisiana Civil Justice Center launched as a disaster-response hotline after Hurricane Katrina. The American Bar Association and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Association have an agreement in every state that triggers an emergency legal phone line whenever a disaster strikes. Louisiana simply never shut its service down: The organization still maintains its Katrina hotline, which now works to expand access to justice to low-income populations around the state.

The legal services that hurricane victims need most fall into a few categories, according to Rhodes. Family law is a big one: Natural disasters put great strain on custody agreements, for example, especially when a parent is forced to take refuge out of state. Domestic violence cases flare up in the wake of disasters.

Housing law, too, is another primary concern. Some survivors must contend with unscrupulous landlords who seize on tragedy as an opportunity to displace their tenants. Foreclosure proceedings and debt collection are concerns that arise soon after a disaster; so are public benefits and employment claims. As communities enter into the recovery stage, residents need lawyers to help deal with insurance companies and contractors. Many hurricane survivors, especially older residents, can be victimized by fraud.

“The poverty population is vulnerable on a daily basis,” Rhodes says. “I don’t like to say it, but I view any state like Louisiana, with its poverty, as in a disaster every day.”

The number of Americans now in need of legal aid may be unprecedented. After Baton Rouge experienced flooding in recent years, some 100,000 residents were displaced, and the Louisiana Civil Justice Center fielded thousands of calls. In Puerto Rico, the majority of the island’s 3.4 million citizens are struggling to find clean drinking water. The center’s “small but mighty” staff of four attorneys and three part-time professional staff can’t hope to even answer as many calls as they’re likely to receive.

“We talk daily to people on the ground in Puerto Rico, our legal-aid counterparts there,” Rhodes says. “They were saying, ‘If you get a call from Puerto Rico, you have to understand the difficulty that that person went through to make that call. They had to find a place to make the call, where they could get cell service. Which means they had to probably drive there. Which means they had to get gas. Which means they had to wait at least 11 or 12 hours in line for the gas. To make that one call is a herculean effort.”

Communities ravaged by this season’s destructive storms may be dealing with legal problems for years down the line. Rhodes says that he recently visited the office of a New Orleans attorney who just settled a Katrina case. Before the recent hurricanes hit, Louisiana was already dealing with four previous, unrelated disasters of its own, from flooding to tornadoes; Rhodes says the center receives 30,000 requests a year from Louisiana’s most vulnerable residents.

Right now, the Louisiana Civil Justice Center and the American Bar Association are looking to sign up lawyers who are licensed to practice law in Puerto Rico or U.S. Virgin Islands to volunteer to take on cases. When people call the hotline, the center will register their case and take down their contact information, then refer them to an attorney. It’s not ideal, Rhodes says, due to the communications issue. Down the road, the legal associations on the islands will have to staff up with attorneys who have expertise dealing with FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program.  

In the aftermath of any natural disaster, financially vulnerable households suffer the largest risks. Given the magnitude of the devastation in U.S. territories, the demand for legal protections, and the consequences of the failure of justice, will be profound. Those calls are only beginning to come in.

“At this moment we are not overwhelmed, but that is only because Puerto Rico can’t call us,” Rhodes says.

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