Free legal assistance available for Texas storm victims
Published 3:19 pm Thursday, March 31, 2016
Special to The Leader
AUSTIN — Following recent storms and flooding in Texas, the State Bar of Texas, the American Bar Association (ABA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other organizations have partnered to help provide assistance to affected individuals.
A toll-free legal hotline (800-504-7030) is available to connect low-income individuals affected by the disaster with local legal aid providers who can help with:
- Assistance securing FEMA and other government benefits available to disaster victims;
- Assistance with life, medical, and property insurance claims;
- Help with home repair contracts and contractors;
- Replacement of wills and other important legal documents lost or destroyed in the disaster;
- Consumer protection issues such as price-gouging and avoiding contractor scams in the rebuilding process;
- Counseling on mortgage-foreclosure problems; and
- Counseling on landlord-tenant problems
The hotline is available 24/7 and callers can leave a message any time. Individuals who qualify for assistance will be matched with Texas lawyers who have volunteered to provide free, limited legal help.
Victims should be aware that there are some limitations on disaster legal services. For example, assistance is not available for cases that will produce a fee (i.e., those cases where attorneys are paid part of the settlement by the court). Such cases are referred to a local lawyer referral service.
On March 19, President Barack Obama issued a major disaster declaration for Texas. As a result, federal disaster aid was made available to the State of Texas. FEMA ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by severe storms, tornadoes, and flooding that began March 7. To date, federal assistance has been extended to nine Texas counties, including Jasper, Newton, Orange, Erath, Gregg, Harrison, Hood, Marion, and Parker.
Texans who sustained property damage as a result of the severe storms and flooding are urged to register with FEMA, as they may be eligible for federal and state disaster assistance. People can register for FEMA assistance online at DisasterAssistance.gov or via smartphone or Web-enabled device at m.fema.gov. Applicants may also call 800-621-3362 or 800-462-7585 (TTY) from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Flood survivors are also encouraged to call the FEMA hotline to report their damage. Other flooding resources may be found on the State Bar of Texas website at texasbar.com/disasters.
Low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) are available for eligible applicants. SBA helps businesses of all sizes (including landlords), private nonprofit organizations, homeowners, and renters fund repairs or rebuilding efforts and cover the cost of replacing lost or damaged personal property. Disaster loans cover losses not fully compensated by insurance or other recoveries.
For more information, individuals may contact SBA’s Disaster Assistance Customer Service Center by calling 800-659-2955, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or visiting SBA’s website at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela. Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals may call 800-877-8339.
For more information on Texas recovery, visit the disaster Web page at fema.gov/disaster/4266, Twitter at twitter.com/femaregion6, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management website, txdps.state.tx.us/dem. Visit fema.gov/texas-disaster-mitigation for publications and reference material on rebuilding and repairing safer and stronger.
Both FEMA and the Texas Attorney General’s Office are warning Texans of the risk of fraud and common scams in the wake of the severe weather. Common post-disaster fraud practices include phony housing inspectors, fraudulent building contractors, bogus pleas for disaster donations, and fake offers of state or federal aid. Texans are urged to ask questions, and to require identification when someone claims to represent a government agency.
Survivors should also keep in mind that state and federal workers never ask for or accept money, and always carry identification badges with a photograph. There is no fee required to apply for or to receive disaster assistance from FEMA, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), or the state. Additionally, no state or federal government disaster assistance agency will call to ask for your financial account information. Unless you place a call to the agency yourself, you should not provide personal information over the phone as it can lead to identity theft.
Those who suspect fraud can call the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 (toll free). Complaints may also be made to local law enforcement agencies.
The following organizations have joined forces to provide a toll-free phone line for Texas disaster victims to request free legal assistance and to connect with volunteer attorneys to handle cases arising from the recent severe weather:
State Bar of Texas (texasbar.com) – The State Bar of Texas is an administrative agency of the Supreme Court of Texas that provides educational programs for the legal profession and the public, administers the minimum continuing legal education program for attorneys, and manages the attorney discipline system. With nearly 99,000 members, it is the second-largest state bar organization in the United States based on active members. The mission of the State Bar of Texas is to support the administration of the legal system, assure all citizens equal access to justice, foster high standards of ethical conduct for lawyers, enable its members to better serve their clients and the public, educate the public about the rule of law, and promote diversity in the administration of justice and the practice of law.
American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (americanbar.org) – The ABA YLD, the largest national organization of young lawyers, provides leadership in serving the public and the profession, and promotes excellence and fulfillment in the practice of law. Its parent organization, the ABA, is the national voice of the legal profession and the largest voluntary professional membership group in the world.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema.gov) – FEMA coordinates the federal government’s role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters—whether natural or man-made—including acts of terror. Through an agreement with the ABA, FEMA underwrites the cost of operating toll-free legal assistance lines for victims in areas designated as federal disaster sites.
Other legal organizations assisting with disaster relief efforts include the Jefferson County Bar Association (jcba.org), Lone Star Legal Aid (lonestarlegal.org), Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (lanwt.org), the Texas Consumer Complaint Center at the University of Houston Law Center (texasccc.com, or 877-839-8422), and the American Red Cross (877-500-8645).
National Disaster Legal Aid Online – NDLA (available at: disasterlegalaid.org) is a collaborative effort of Lone Star Legal Aid, the American Bar Association, the Legal Services Corporation, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and Pro Bono Net.