COMMENTARY: For attorneys, recovering from Harvey is just beginning

BY G. THOMAS VICK JR., AND ALISTAIR DAWSONS

When homes were blown apart or flooded, hundreds of lawyers across this state and nation jumped into action, providing their assistance in Hurricane Harvey’s wake to the thousands of Texans who were devastated by this storm.

As National Celebration of Pro Bono Week begins today — and runs through Saturday — we want to honor and thank those lawyers around the state who have helped with the Harvey recovery efforts.

Hundreds of lawyers, paralegals and law students have volunteered through the State Bar of Texas and local bar associations to assist members of the public after Hurricane Harvey. But we know that’s not the complete picture.

Michael Hofrichter, director of operations with Houston Volunteer Lawyers, reports that more than 700 attorneys initially reached out to his group to volunteer their services in Houston, alone. More than 150 attorneys volunteered to answer questions from people affected by the storm through the Houston Bar Association’s Legal Line, a call-in program that started right after the storm and runs through October 27.

People, regardless of profession, did miraculous things in the days after Harvey’s landfall. We saw lawyers don rain gear and commandeer boats to assist rescuing people and animals. Hofrichter recalls witnessing one lawyer, who had three feet of water in his own home, take the time to help others understand exactly what they needed to do to begin the recovery process.

Survivors of natural disasters have a number of hurdles in front of them that they may need legal advice to clear. Survivors often need instruction on how to replace lost documents, assistance with tenant or landlord disputes, guidance on how to avoid contractor scams, and help with insurance or federal claims and appeals, among other matters.

But the problems created by disasters like Harvey don’t vanish when the floodwaters recede. They remain even after the homes dry out, are rebuilt, and once again are habitable.

Hurricane Sandy victims came forward just weeks after Harvey hit to detail their years of delays, noting that many are still waiting for full reimbursement for their losses. New York state attorneys are still working on and appealing those cases.

We know there was a significant and unmet need for pro bono legal assistance in Texas before the hurricane hit. Before Harvey, more than 5 million Texans who qualified for legal aid could not find representation. There’s a massive need now for pro bono legal help, and it will only continue.

We encourage all attorneys to consider how they may help their fellow Texans during this time. Legal aid agencies in the affected areas in particular need attorneys willing to take on FEMA appeals cases. Attorneys across the state can volunteer to assist at Texasbar.com/attorneyvolunteer.

For members of the public, we want to assure you there is help available. Reach out through the State Bar of Texas’ disaster legal assistance hotline at (800) 504-7030. The hotline is answered in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese and it serves as a clearinghouse to get callers to legal aid agencies in their areas. You also can log on to TexasLegalAnswers.org — a free legal advice website — and post a question and have it answered by an attorney volunteer. Look for local bar associations in your area as they also may have special clinics and services.

Texas is stronger than this one storm. Pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps is challenging, pulling someone else up by their bootstraps is even more rewarding.