By Reena K. Shah
As the end of the year nears and we take stock of 2018, what sticks out in my mind, again, are the natural disasters. Year over year, we’re witnessing bigger and more destructive weather events, the latest of course being the Camp Fire in California.
When a disaster strikes, most people think of sending money to the Red Cross or other similar organizations. But I always support the local civil legal aid organization, and I want others to do the same. Civil legal aid has always been an important part of disaster recovery – after all, what better time or mental state to learn about your rights or deal with a pile of paperwork than after a natural disaster? But there are still too many people who don’t make that connection, and we want to change that.
In the past, civil legal aid organizations have responded to the call and the needs of the community, but in 2018, we’ve really seen a level of organizing, innovating, infrastructure development, and strategizing around disaster legal aid that has not existed before. This year, Pro Bono Net, in partnership with Lone Star Legal Aid (whose offices caught fire during Hurricane Harvey, but they still provided legal aid to Houston residents) and the Legal Services Corporation, launched a national roundtable series to discuss LEGAL disaster preparedness, response and recovery. They are calling on all partners – from law firms, state bars, the judiciary, civil legal aid organizations and law schools to join. The North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission has developed a very helpful (and cool) interactive map showing who needs legal help after Hurricane Florence. And Equal Justice Works launched a Disaster Recovery Legal Corps that will deliver legal assistance to survivors of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Even though all these organizations are cash-strapped and under-resourced, they are doing their best to answer the call when disaster strikes. So, the next time a natural disaster hits, be sure to support civil legal aid.
Reena K. Shah is Executive Director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission.