Legal Representation Critical Component of Recovery for Disaster Victims

Watching, along with the rest of America, the catastrophic flooding in Houston, my heart goes out to the people of South Texas as they confront the immediate aftermath of this disaster. Every affected individual captured by the television camera has his/her own unique story. And yet, the cumulative images – women wading through chest-deep water with their infants hoisted toward the sky, families huddled together on freeway overpasses, the frail and elderly clinging to the sides of air-lift baskets – are all too reminiscent of those from Hurricane Katrina which struck the Gulf Coast twelve years ago this week.

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Sadly, Katrina taught us that disaster recovery is a long journey with a predictable sequence of serious challenges for affected individuals, particularly those with limited resources: the displacement of tens of thousands of people from their homes; the further displacement of thousands as a result of predatory evictions motivated by the opportunity for price-gouging; disputes over regulatory decisions regarding eligibility for early and much-needed disaster assistance; not-in-my-backyard zoning decisions regarding the placement of temporary housing; crooks and con men tricking the desperate and vulnerable into paying for housing repairs that will never be performed, and of course the inevitable effort by public officials to divert disaster funds to pet projects that benefit political supporters.

 These and other challenges can be successfully surmounted only when those affected by a natural disaster have access to legal advice and assistance. As a non-profit, public-interest law firm with pro bono support from regional and national law firms, the Mississippi Center for Justice was able to provide direct legal services to thousands of Katrina victims. Those who formulate the Hurricane Harvey disaster relief legislation would be well-advised to include support for the delivery of legal services to affected populations. It won’t change the length of their journey, but it will definitely lighten their load.

John Jopling is the Biloxi Managing Attorney/Housing Law Director for the Mississippi Center for Justice.