Testimony: Disaster Response Legal Services

Testimony by Nicholas Dorman before Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearing to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York 

October 1, 2013 

Chief Judge Lippman, thank you for the invitation to speak at today’s hearing. My name is Nicholas Dorman. I grew up on Staten Island. When Superstorm Sandy hit in October 2012, I was living with my wife, Tanya, who is a teacher, and our 2 children in Great Kills. Our house, like so many of our friends’ and neighbors’, was destroyed by the storm. We took in at least 7 feet of flood waters from the bay and boats from a nearby marina crashed into our home and landed in our yard. Thankfully, my wife and children had evacuated to a friend’s home in New Jersey before the storm and they were not physically harmed. But the impact to our home was so great that we have yet to return and may never be able to live there again. I am a member of the FDNY and was on duty during the storm and many of the days that followed. Through my family’s own experience and my experiences on the job, I have seen firsthand the devastating impact Sandy had on Staten Island and throughout the City.

Before the storm, my wife, kids and I were a typical Staten Island family. We loved our home and our neighborhood. We always paid our bills, including our mortgage, insurance and taxes. But because of Sandy, our lives have been turned upside down.

After the storm, the first thing we needed was to find a new place to live. The four of us lived in my brother-in-law’s basement for 3 months and have been renting a home in New Springville since then. My wife and I quickly started to do everything we thought we were supposed to do after a disaster. We contacted FEMA and submitted a claim with our insurance company. At first, we tried to do everything ourselves. We weren’t looking for handouts, but assumed our claims would be handled properly and that we would be able to get the assistance we were entitled to. But we learned very fast how wrong we were and how difficult it would be to try to navigate all of these issues on our own.

By mid-November, I was already extremely frustrated trying to deal with FEMA and insurance companies. I felt like I was getting the runaround instead of the money I needed and was entitled to. I received an email from Senator Lanza’s office about a van from a law firm that would be at Hylan Boulevard and Armstrong Avenue the next day to provide free legal assistance to people who were having problems as the result of Sandy. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but by this time I knew I could use help, so I went. That was when I first met a lawyer from the New York Legal Assistance Group, or NYLAG. I initially met with an attorney on NYLAG’s Mobile Legal Help Center, which is a law office on wheels. I had never needed a lawyer before, but was glad to be able to talk with one. I explained my situation and the problems we were having. The attorney gave me some good advice about dealing with FEMA and promised that another NYLAG attorney would follow up with me soon. Since that first meeting, the lawyers from NYLAG’s Storm Response Unit, especially Christopher Fasano, have helped me with many issues as my family tries to move on from Sandy.

For example, like many impacted homeowners, we still don’t know whether we should sell our home, repair it or tear it down and rebuild. We have applied for the State’s Block Grant program and hope to qualify for a buyout of the house, but don’t know whether we will. In the meantime, we are still dealing with insurance companies to increase the payout on our claim and with FEMA. We are also still responsible for the mortgage on our destroyed home even while we are paying rent at our current home. Our legal services attorneys have helped us obtain a mortgage forbearance and are helping us avoid a possible foreclosure while we pursue the buyout. NYLAG also introduced us to pro bono lawyers at a private firm who are helping negotiate with the insurance companies and NYLAG represented us in a property tax appeal.

Unfortunately, even now, almost a year later, my family and I keep facing new challenges. NYLAG is always there to help when we need them. They have helped us understand and tackle many of the issues we are dealing with as the result of Sandy. It has been extremely valuable to be able to consult with a civil legal services attorney to understand these issues and how they all impact one another.

I never thought I could lose so much so quickly. I now appreciate firsthand the importance of having high quality civil legal services. I am grateful that I have NYLAG in my corner, helping me and my family as we recover from Sandy.

Respectfully submitted,
NICHOLAS DORMAN