By the time that North Carolina Lawyers Weekly went to press Sept. 20, Hurricane Florence had dropped up to three feet of rain in parts of the state, leading to flooding with the potential for more on the way. The Cape Fear River has already risen to 25 feet above flood stage according to the National Weather Service.
At least 27 people have died in the state as a result of the storm, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
While the full extent of the damage has yet to be ascertained, economists told the AP that they predict damages will exceed $17 billion in lost economic output and property damage.
While the primary concern of those impacted is taking care of their homes and loved ones, lawyers throughout the state are taking action to help others, doing everything from providing donations and aid to helping with the rescue of those who are trapped in the flood waters.
Members of the legal community are also taking the lead to serve another important function that may be less obvious at this early stage of cleanup. The North Carolina Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, the North Carolina Bar Foundation and Legal Aid of North Carolina are working to provide free legal support for those who are impacted by the storm.
“I’m a strong believer in the power of a response,” said NCBF pro bono staff attorney Nihad Mansour, whose responsibilities include working with online pro bono service provider freelegalanswers.org, a service created by the American Bar Association. “Response gives hope to someone in a devastating situation … I definitely believe free legal answers is you responding to a simple question that is helpful to direct someone in the right way and tell them where to go, to not feel alone in this, that there are attorneys in North Carolina that want to help and are willing and ready to be responsive when they’re needed.”
In response to the storm, Mansour said that the website is providing free online legal resources to income-eligible Hurricane Florence victims who have questions about storm-related legal problems.
She said that new categories have been created on the website to include areas of law ranging from housing to consumer conflicts to insurance to helping people with wills and probate to replacing lost documents. Mansour said that volunteer lawyers are needed to help assist in answering the questions that get posted on the site, and that little commitment is required to be helpful.
“Once approved, you can log in and browse the queue of questions in your own time and own space,” she said. “You can be proactive, and if you want to respond to questions, you can.”
Mansour said that the group has already gotten great response from lawyers, but that she expects many more volunteers to sign on in the coming weeks. In the meantime, she asked that interested lawyers go to https://nc.freelegalanswers.org/ and click on the voluntary lawyer registration tab to make an account. Once registered, she said attorneys should subscribe to the categories they’re most interested in to start receiving and answering questions.
Meanwhile the NCBA’s Young Lawyers Division has teamed up with Legal Aid to begin organizing and recruiting attorneys for a disaster services hotline.
Brooks Jaffa, chair of the NCBA’s Young Lawyers Division Standing Committee on Disaster Legal Services, said that the hotline began operation Sept. 19. People with legal issues arising from Hurricane Florence can call 1-833-242-3549 for assistance.
He said that the hotline is designed to assist low-income hurricane victims who would not otherwise be able to afford an attorney. Callers who qualify under Legal Aid’s income eligibility guidelines will be matched with a volunteer attorney through Legal Aid. Callers who exceed Legal Aid’s income eligibility requirements will be matched with a volunteer attorney through the NCBA.
Attorneys interested in providing pro bono assistance to those affected by Hurricane Florence may register to do so at https://tinyurl.com/y7t747h4.
Andrew Jones, District 9 (North Carolina) Representative to the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, is located in Wilmington and has seen the flooding first hand. He said that any attorneys who can help are needed and will continue to be needed in the coming months.
“We need lawyers from different practice areas and with varying years of experience,” he said. “But we’re not just going to need lawyers now, we’re going to need them months from now.”
Rachel Blunk, the chair of the NCBA Young Lawyers Division said that while the demand for pro bono attorney service was huge after Hurricane Matthew, she thinks that the need seen after that storm will pale in comparison to the needs after Florence.
“With the scope of Florence, our understanding is that there will be a greater need for legal services from the public, and therefore a greater need for volunteer attorneys. The NCBA YLD is glad to partner with other organizations to provide assistance,” she said.
Jaffa said that volunteer attorneys in conjunction with attorneys from Legal Aid also intend to travel to disaster resource centers and hold clinics to provide in-person assistance.
“Disaster relief efforts are primarily focused on immediate survival right now,” he said. “As the focus shifts towards recovery, we will work with Legal Aid and FEMA and the American Red Cross to put those plans into action.”
Jones stressed the importance of helping out.
“I think we have an obligation as lawyers to use our education and experience for the benefit of our brothers and sisters in need,” he said. “I’m seeing it here on the ground these past few days. Folks don’t know where to turn to for legal advice when they need it after a disaster and we’re well qualified to provide that support.”
For more ideas about what you can do to help, go to https://www.ncbar.org/florence/for-volunteer-attorneys/. More resources can also be found at http://www.legalaidnc.org/get-help/self-help-library/disaster-relief.
Follow Matthew Chaney on Twitter @NCLWChaney