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This subsection covers some of the common themes that arise when assisting clients during or after a disaster event and recommends strategies that advocates may utilize to build the attorney-client relationship. Issues related to housing, scams and unscrupulous commercial practices, disaster relief programs, and healthcare access are just a few of the legal areas for which clients will require assistance. These types of issues often adversely impact the mental health and wellbeing of survivors.

Providing legal assistance to clients affected by disaster requires good listening skills, empathy, and a focus on issue-spotting. Many disaster survivors, including young children, require counseling and therapy for several years. Survivors may sustain physical injury or illness leading to several other long-term effects, and they often display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the disaster.

Client intake and case strategy plans should integrate awareness of these unique factors to provide the best holistic services for clients. Additionally, referrals to non-legal resources should be offered to all clients, regardless of whether they specifically identify a mental health or other need. Most people affected by disaster have more non-legal needs than they can articulate, and they may be embarrassed to ask for help. Needs may include: mental health/crisis counseling; food or baby formula; toiletries for personal hygiene and clean clothing; medical prescription refills; unique needs for older and disabled persons; unique needs for LGBTQ+ persons; and unique needs related to domestic violence, sexual assault, or trafficking issues either caused or worsened by the disaster situation.

Below are some of the needs for which clients may require resources and general recommendations for where resources may be found. When there is a presidential disaster declaration, there may be federal resources in place to address these needs—for example, FEMA crisis counseling may be made available in the declaration. However, FEMA disaster assistance is structured to supplement existing local resources and not replace them, so advocates should also contact state and local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD)28 and their state 2-1-1 program29 for the most current list of available community services.

Mental Health/Crisis Counseling. To find out if your state has a FEMA crisis counseling program, call the FEMA Helpline 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). For the hearing impaired, please call 1-800-462-7585.

Disaster Legal Services Under the Stafford Act and Immediate Resources for Attorneys. Disaster legal services (DLS) may become available under a presidential disaster declaration.30 If DLS is available, then the American Bar Association (ABA) Young Lawyers Division (YLD) in tandem with FEMA work together to provide and coordinate legal services in the affected area.31 The ABA YLD and state bar YLD representatives will be closely involved with the provision of free legal services for low-income people impacted by the disaster. They will utilize existing legal services programs, pro bono attorneys, and other local legal resources.

The ABA maintains a webpage for disaster legal assistance resources, including a link to the Attorney Disaster Toolkit created by Iowa Legal Aid.32 Contacting and coordinating with the ABA YLD and state bar YLD to provide effective disaster legal assistance is necessary and beneficial. The National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center webpage is an extremely helpful resource for practicing legal aid attorneys, pro bono attorneys, and survivors in need of legal assistance.33

In addition, The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Disaster Task Force maintains a webpage34 and an accompanying Legal Aid Disaster Resource Center.35 The LSC Disaster Task Force issued a report on how legal services programs can best collaborate with “federal, state, and local emergency managers, private attorneys, businesses, non-profit organizations, and social services providers to help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.”36