Civil Legal Assistance in Natural Disasters: A Role for the Library

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Thanks to Kathy Grunewald from Legal Services of North Florida for assistance in writing this article.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, civil legal issues abound. In these stressful situations, when many people have lost so much, they are also faced with untangling legal questions that can be confusing and ever-changing. If property is damaged, can landlords force tenants to move out? Do they still have to pay rent? Can a FEMA denial of assistance be appealed? Does a person have to apply for a Small Business Administration loan? Do custody arrangements have to be honored in this disrupted situation? In this article, we’ll focus on key ways libraries can help with civil legal issues and questions stemming from a natural disaster.

Libraries as trusted source of information and access

Libraries are a trusted source of information and often a first stop for people looking for reliable answers. This holds true especially during natural disasters.

So much of today's information comes from the internet. Libraries often provide patrons with dependable access to the internet and reliable WiFi, and are open at hours that extend beyond the normal business day. In addition to gathering information online, a crucial early step for individuals who have experienced a disaster is filling out e-government forms to access FEMA aid. Public library staff often help patrons with basic computer literacy skills to navigate these forms.

Before the disaster

It’s helpful to think about the library’s entry points to assistance on a timeline, starting before disaster strikes and continuing through to the aftermath of a disaster.

Well before a natural disaster is looming, learn about the organizations in the community that do disaster recovery work and build a partnership with them. Find out if the community has a COAD – Community Organizations Active in Disaster. A COAD is a local group of community organizations that coordinates emergency human services, while working in concert with partner agencies, including the local emergency management agency, social service agencies, and non-profit organizations involved in disaster preparedness, response and recovery, during all stages of a disaster. Additionally, find the state’s VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) to learn about the different players in disaster response in the area and how the library can help. These relationships will take time to build and be nurtured, but libraries know how to be good partners! For tips on creating strong partnerships, see the Community Partnership and Collaboration Guide on WebJunction.

Patron education around preparedness is another excellent first step. In terms of civil legal issues, people should understand they’ll need hard copies of important documents to be eligible for benefits. For example, it may be necessary to provide a utility bill to prove residence for certain benefits. Many people pay their bills online and may not have received a bill in the mail for years.

A person may need to prove both occupancy and ownership of their home at the time of the disaster to be eligible for certain benefits. They may not have a clear title to their home if it is in the name of several people or a deceased relative who did not have a will. These situations can become complicated quickly, and it’s best to help patrons prepare for these issues prior to a natural disaster.

As disaster is imminent

As the disaster is immediately approaching, the library’s priority is to keep staff, patrons, and facilities safe. Additionally, libraries should be aware of which shelters are open and which agencies are providing food, so they can share this information with patrons. This information is usually found at the state’s emergency management office.

Soon after the disaster

The most immediate issue after the disaster will be that patrons need to apply for FEMA benefits, and they may come to the library to use the computer if they can’t get to the disaster recovery center.

Some things to consider:

  • Understand the difference between individual assistance and public assistance. State, territorial, tribal, and local government entities and certain private non-profit organizations are eligible to apply for Public Assistance. This does not help individuals directly, e.g. to rebuild a house, but it will address things like getting the roads cleaned up. Individual Assistance is administered through FEMA’s Individual and Household Program (IHP) that provides direct services to individuals affected by a disaster and have uninsured or underinsured serious needs and necessary expenses. Listen for what type of disaster is declared to be able to help answer patron questions about the type of assistance offered. Every disaster is given a disaster number and will have a page on FEMA’s website. The type of assistance being offered, and other information related to the disaster will be made available on the disaster’s page.
  • Eligibility requirements for disaster benefits are more generous than regular benefits. A patron who does not quality for food through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in normal times may be eligible for DSNAP – disaster SNAP or disaster food assistance. DSNAP is limited assistance, but it is helpful in a crisis.
  • Learn whether your state has a price gouging statute. At least 34 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia have statutes or regulations that define price gouging during a time of disaster or emergency. It’s usually defined as violation of unfair or deceptive trade practices and is accompanied by civil penalties. If prices are 10 or 15 percent higher (some states have different thresholds), then it may be determined that price gouging has occurred. Learn more about price gouging laws by state.

  • Patrons may not know that the Small Business Administration (SBA) is involved in disaster recovery for individuals, not just businesses. For example, they can offer a low interest loan for a person who doesn’t have insurance, or enough insurance, to repair their home. FEMA will make a home habitable but not put it back to what it was. SBA loans can help restore a home to its state before the disaster. These loans will not be applicable for very low-income individuals as the person needs to show they will have an income and will be able to pay the loan back.  See more information on SBA Disaster Assistance.

A little later after disaster

  • “Unmet needs” is a term of art in disaster recovery, and it refers to the need for goods or services by disaster victims that are not covered by personal means, insurance, or existing assistance programs. Long term recovery organizations such as religious or community organizations (or COADs) will be able to help with unmet needs, usually through an online application process. For example, if a patron can’t get her house repaired because she doesn’t have the legal title. A long-term recovery organization can help the patron obtain legal assistance to probate a will under unmet needs. Another example would be to help with next steps after an appeal to FEMA is denied.

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Photo: Burlington County Disaster Response Library Directors by New Jersey State Library on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0