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The needs of those affected by Hurricane Michael are still great

Senior Editor

Volunteers sought to attend to the legal needs of the victims

Office damage

YOUNG LAWYERS DIVISION Board of Governors member Kevin Barr of Panama City, who represents the 14th Circuit, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Michael in October, was forced to move out of his home and law office, pictured above, and now commutes from neighboring Panama City Beach.

Declaring that “this is our new normal,” ABA President Bob Carlson came to Tallahassee on December 11 to find out how Hurricane Michael recovery efforts, particularly those requiring lawyers, are going.

Carlson, during a whirlwind set of meetings, met with The Florida Bar, Young Lawyers Division, FEMA, legal aid, and other government and nonprofit officials, to assess the Category 4 storm’s aftermath, how the legal system is responding — particularly the ABA’s efforts to help victims with their legal problems — and how those responses can be improved in the future.

Bob CarlsonCarlson was accompanied by Linda Anderson Stanley of Bay Area Legal Services and the vice coordinator of the ABA’s Disaster Legal Services Program, and Andrew VanSingel, a special advisor to the ABA. Carlson said perhaps nothing demonstrates the challenges better than VanSingel’s travels in the past year, which have ranged from Puerto Rico to the Marianas Islands and numerous states in the wake of hurricanes, typhoons, wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters that experts have predicted will become a way of life.

“We’re here to listen to you to see if we can assist in collaborating to solve some of the problems you are having, and to prepare for the next disaster,” Carlson said at a meeting at the Florida State University College of Law that included FEMA, Legal Services of North Florida, law professors, lawyers, and Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga. “We know other disasters are going to befall us. It’s just a matter of when and what is the magnitude.”

Aside from the FSU law school, Carlson met with officials at The Florida Bar and with legal aid lawyers at Legal Services of North Florida, as part of a day-long tour and conversation about responding to Michael’s aftermath and preparing for future events.

Much of the conversation was about the continuing, and in some cases worsening, problems Panhandle residents faced after Michael.

Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors member Kevin Barr, who represents the 14th Circuit, which bore the brunt of the storm, was forced to move out of both his house and law office and now commutes from neighboring Panama City Beach.

“Driving across that bridge from Panama City Beach to Panama City is a gut punch every time,” Barr said. “It’s a war zone. People are still living in tents.”

Nine weeks after the storm:

• Electricity still has not been restored to many areas and even areas with power don’t have landline or cell phone service or internet access (including Legal Services of North Florida’s Panama City office, which means it has no phones).

• The Panama City Mall has closed, a major job loss for the area.

• Both of Panama City’s hospitals were heavily damaged. One is operating only its emergency room and the other has laid off 800 employees and is only using a fraction of its former bed space.

• The fate of numerous small businesses in towns throughout the region is uncertain as the owners may not have the financial resources to reopen even when the infrastructure is fixed and restored, noted City of Tallahassee Resilience Officer Abena Ojetayo. The timber industry was devastated and once blown down trees are salvaged, it may take a generation to recover. “We’re losing good paying jobs, the economy is suffering,” Barr said. “Every day it just seems to be getting worse.”

• Temporary housing from FEMA is taking longer than expected. Barr said local governments have been finding space and expediting approval for FEMA trailers. When Carlson visited, FEMA had approved 1,400 applications for trailers. But only 39 had arrived. Barr said housing was the biggest crisis in Bay County. Red Cross official Sharon Tyler said around 18,000 families lacked adequate housing.

• Carmalla J. Coley, the individual assistant branch director overseeing the FEMA efforts, said the agency is preparing for the long haul. She said FEMA representatives expect to be in the Panhandle for the next three years working on the recovery.

Coley also said FEMA may be limited in what it can do. Most damage from Michael was caused by its high winds, and many people have insurance for such wind damage. FEMA assistance is not available for damages covered by such insurance. Nonetheless, FEMA had accepted around 100,000 applications since Michael (and the application deadline had been extended by a week as Carlson visited the area) and dispensed $120 million.

Coley said one of the first things FEMA did was activate, through a memo of understanding, the ABA Disaster Legal Program, which is run through the Bar’s Young Lawyers Division, primarily as a toll-free number where storm victims can call when they need legal help. Carlson praised the YLD’s operation as robust and provided continuing feedback on its operation.

(By Carlson’s visit, the service had 196 volunteer lawyers and had fielded 514 calls.)

Much of the discussions throughout the day focused on problems and possible solutions.

Leslie Powell-Boudreaux, executive director of Legal Services of North Florida, said housing right now is a major problem. Her staff summed up that problem for Carlson as, “landlord-tenant, landlord-tenant, landlord-tenant.”

Those range from tenants wondering what to do in rental housing that is damaged and may not be habitable and some wondering what to do if they have, at least temporarily, lost their jobs. Another problem is landlords seeking to evict tenants from undamaged housing even when tenants with leases are current on their rent because of the storm-caused housing shortage, rents are spiking. Some have reported landlords cutting power to units, even when it is available, to force them to leave. One legal aid attorney said at least 50 eviction cases where rent was current had arisen in just a few days for one complex.

Powell-Boudreaux said landlords are counting on their tenants not understanding that it takes a court order to force an eviction and are merely posting notices on doors — without going to court — ordering them to leave.

A smattering of other types of cases have come in, including needing help with FEMA red tape, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and problems with private insurance claims. Powell-Boudreaux and her staff expect those types of claims to balloon as more immediate needs of storm victims are addressed. (She also reported that 11 of the 16 counties her agency services were impacted by Michael.) Some problems, Powell-Boudreaux said, can be complex such as a custodial parent under an order not to leave the area but now needing to relocate because of a lack of housing, employment, or both.

Another unexpected problem is there are more Spanish speakers in the area than many people realized, which means a need for translators when they deal with lawyers and FEMA.

Justice Labarga, speaking at the FSU meeting, said the goal of the court system was to show that the rule of law remained in place and working even after such an extensive disaster.

“We still have to have due process,” Labarga said. “We adhere to the requirements of a rule of procedure that citizens are entitled to see a judge within 24 hours of their arrest. It’s important for citizens to realize the rules are still in effect.”

John Berry, the Bar’s director of Lawyer Regulation, said an overlooked problem is lawyers who are struggling with addiction problems and are in various programs, such as AA, lose access to that help in post-disaster chaos, at a time when the disaster puts them under additional stress.

“The main focus of your visit is lawyers helping others, but we also need to help lawyers,” Berry told Carlson.

Carlson noted that the emphasis of this year’s ABA Pro Bono Week was on natural disasters, not only on helping victims but on lawyers preparing their own offices’ “resiliency.”

VanSingel also said there’s a tendency to think that FEMA is the solution to all disaster problems. However, the reality is that, in comment echoed later by FEMA’s Coley, “FEMA will say all disasters start and end locally,” he said. VanSingel added that, unlike what many think, FEMA is not a first responder and depending on when a disaster declaration is issued, it may be days or weeks before the agency is on site with its resources and assistance.

Lawyers who want to volunteer to help Hurricane Michael victims through Legal Services of North Florida can contact that organziation at https://www.lsnf.org/hurricane-michael/. To volunteer to do any pro bono through that agency, go to https://www.lsnf.org/sign-up/.

Bar members can find out more information about the FEMA program operated though the YLD on the YLD’s website at https://flayld.org/get-involved/disaster-relief-fema-hotline/.

The Bar’s practice advisory service, LegalFuel, also has information about how lawyers can prepare their offices for and recover from disasters; https://www.legalfuel.com/disaster-planning-business-continuity.