Within four days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast on its path through Mississippi, the American Bar Association (ABA) had established a Web site to help attorneys provide disaster assistance to storm victims.
The Web site, which can be accessed via the ABA’s home page, abanet.org, will be continually updated to its 400,000 members about volunteer efforts to provide legal assistance, make donations for disaster relief, and receive guidance on the most effective methods of helping hurricane victims.
The Web site link for the ABA, the largest voluntary professional association in the world, also provides information for members directly impacted by the disaster, including resources on rebuilding a law practice and disaster recovery plans. The Web site also serves as a valuable resource for the general public, offering referrals, hotline numbers, assistance for military personnel, small business owners and others.
The Mississippi Bar (and Bar Foundation) has also established a relief fund and Law Office Resource Clearinghouse to help lawyers who lost their offices during the storm.
“Many law offices have been completely destroyed,” said Larry Houchins, executive director of The Mississippi Bar. “Others have suffered severe damage. All will need help becoming operational again. While the list of resources needed is open-ended at this time, specific needs include temporary office space, used office equipment, used office furniture. Needs may change in the future as communication with lawyers on the Coast becomes available. However, at this time the Bar is soliciting any resources that will assist lawyers in re-opening and operating their law offices, because legal issues as a result of this disaster will be overwhelming.”
Since 1978, the American Bar Association and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have utilized The Mississippi Bar Young Lawyers Division (YLD) to provide legal assistance to disaster victims.
“When Hurricane Katrina turned toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Mississippi YLD jumped to action,” said YLD president Amanda Jones. “Disaster Legal assistance committee chairs were notified and provided the YLD disaster legal assistance handbook, which would aid volunteer attorneys in assisting disaster victims in areas of consumer finance, insurance and landlord/tenant law. The Mississippi Bar YLD has established a toll-free hotline for disaster victims in the 15 counties declared disaster areas and has already responded to requests for legal assistance.”
Beginning September 6, lawyers from the across the state began manning Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC) set up by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The DRC in Ocean Springs was the first MEMA-opened center.
On September 9, the YLD began providing volunteer lawyers for two additional sites in Jackson County at Pascagoula and Moss Point. The YLD will coordinate the staffing of the DRCs in the 15 disaster counties as they are established.
A call for volunteers on The Mississippi Bar Web site included the following disclaimer: “please be advised: those going to the Coast will need to bring their own provisions and will be working in extremely primitive conditions, sleeping in cars, etc. Initial shifts will be two to three days.”
“We just wanted to prepare them that we wouldn’t be vacationing on the Coast,” explained Jones. “I met with a rep from MEMA on Friday (September 2) and have talked to him several times since then, and he informed me that the conditions on the Coast were not pleasant. Safety was my primary concern, but comfort was not.”
By Labor Day, 72 volunteers had signed up to man the on-site legal assistance centers and more than 50 had agreed to provide telephone assistance. Other YLD members, like president-elect Rhea Tannehill, are helping in other ways. Tannehill is serving with a National Guard unit in Hattiesburg, and several other YLD members were stationed in Iraq last year.
“We have been overwhelmed by the offers of assistance from Bar associations, lawyers and law firms from all across the country,” said Houchins.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.