A Storm without Precedent: An Unprecedented Response

When Hurricane Sandy came crashing into New York on October 29, 2012, it created a demand for disaster assistance unprecedented in the State’s history. Thousands of poor and low-income families were critically impacted by the storm’s path of destruction. NYLAG itself was hit hard by the storm – its downtown offices were flooded, knocking out all communications and displacing attorneys, support staff, and countless volunteers.

Recognizing that legal assistance is one of the most important, yet least recognized, needs in the wake of any disaster, within 48 hours, NYLAG was operating a dedicated Storm Help Hotline out of temporary office space donated by the UJA-Federation of New York. NYLAG’s operations team and new Storm Response Unit were stationed there, while the legal staff relocated to temporary space donated by 11 law firms across the City. Thanks to this generosity, NYLAG was able to mobilize and respond almost overnight, with staff working around the clock, often in a volunteer capacity, to ramp up services. To gain insights in delivering disaster relief legal services after a natural disaster NYLAG reached out to Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which worked with victims of Hurricane Katrina. With their help, NYLAG trained 100 of its own legal staff and subsequently over 1,500 pro bono attorneys, using in-depth webinars and existing manuals on how to deliver disaster legal services effectively.

By the end of 2012, the new Storm Response Unit had helped more than 2,500 storm victims. Initially functioning much like first responders, staff and volunteers deployed to dozens of community sites throughout impacted areas, or worked aboard NYLAG’s Mobile Legal Help Center. Their work largely involved helping clients with urgent short term needs like FEMA and Small Business Administration applications or housing issues, public benefits, and insurance.

Based on attorneys’ observations on the ground, and lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina, NYLAG knew that a number of long-term problems would soon emerge, demanding skilled legal assistance to resolve a host of issues including dealing with private insurance companies, landlord-tenant disputes, mortgage loan defaults, and foreclosure proceedings. In January 2013, thanks to generous grants from The Robin Hood Foundation, UJA-Federation of New York and others, NYLAG launched a vastly expanded program that shifted from crisis response to coordinated long term recovery mode.

The Storm Response Unit is today a large, diverse team providing both general and specialized legal services to those affected by the storm. This team includes private insurance attorneys; FEMA/disaster benefits attorneys; housing attorneys for renters; foreclosure prevention attorneys; public benefits coordinators and financial counselors. The project reaches clients through a unique three-pronged approach:

  • Attorneys deployed to 22+ community sites in affected areas of New York City and Long Island. For each assigned day and location, a NYLAG attorney, supported by one or two pro bono volunteers, sees clients via both pre-scheduled appointments and walk-ins.
  • NYLAG’s Mobile Legal Help Center bring attorneys directly into the hardest hit areas. This mobile initiative is especially important since many community-based organizations were damaged by Sandy, making it difficult to find space to conduct legal consultations.
  • A Storm Help Hotline, which is the main source of storm-related legal referrals from dozens of local entities across New York State.

Storm Sandy’s destruction in New York has no precedent. But with the support of its board, staff, donors and the New York legal community, NYLAG’s response has been unprecedented as well, ensuring that the agency fulfills its mission to protect the legal rights of vulnerable New Yorkers in their time of extreme need.