Bar Association Providing Support for Maui Wildfire Victims
The American Bar Association’s Disaster Legal Services program is designed to help disaster victims access legal guidance and avoid fraud.
The American Bar Association has mobilized a legal support team in response to recent devastating wildfires in Hawaii, part of a long-running disaster-response program that’s become increasingly busy.
Last week, ABA announced that it had set up a hotline and other supports for victims of the August wildfires on the island of Maui, which have reportedly killed more than 100 people, with nearly 400 people missing. Lawyers coordinated through ABA provide legal support to victims around insurance claims, access to FEMA benefits, and consumer fraud.
ABA’s effort is managed by its Disaster Legal Services program, a volunteer group managed by the association’s Young Lawyers Division. According to Amanda L. Brown, current director of Disaster Legal Services, the group has around a dozen volunteers that gather to coordinate responses in cases where state and federal authorities have officially declared an emergency. ABA has a memorandum of understanding with FEMA that permits the association to provide legal support.
“We really act as project managers, working face-to-face with the local organizations that are doing boots-on-the-ground work,” Brown said.
In the case of the Maui wildfires, Disaster Legal Services coordinated with FEMA, the Hawaii Bar Association, and Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, which will handle hotline calls, coordinate volunteers, and make lawyers available to answer questions at FEMA recovery centers.
“We get together to get on the same page about the hotline, who’s going to receive calls and direct survivors to where they need to go,” Brown said. “We discuss what case-handling procedures look like, whether they’re sent directly to a pool of pro bono volunteers recruited by the state bar association or the legal aid organization. We identify other organizations or groups that should be involved.”
Because lawyers can only work in jurisdictions where they’re licensed, it can be difficult for Disaster Legal Services to have a pool of volunteers on hand in advance of disasters, though Brown said it has more experience in a state like Florida, where hurricanes are common. Much of the time between the declaration of a federal emergency on Aug. 10 and the opening of the hotline on Aug. 29 involved coordinating available lawyers. But there’s no closing date on ABA’s engagement.
“We try and keep the initiative open for 60 days after the [disaster relief] application deadline ends, because that’s generally the time period for which appeals wrap up,” she said. “But there are cases like Hurricane Irma and Maria, huge disasters, where we might have an initiative going for a year or more because issues continue to linger.”
Regardless, Disaster Relief Services is busier than ever, Brown said. According to ABA, the program has responded to nearly 300 disasters in 45 states and five U.S. territories. Those numbers have accelerated, and ABA has expanded its volunteer pool in response.
“In the last year alone, we’ve responded to 20 disasters,” she said. “That’s a lot to ask of what used to be a team of five or six people to manage all those as volunteers on top of our day jobs. We’re definitely trying to expand our scope just so we can keep up with the volume.”