Following Crisis, Civil Legal Aid Plays Critical Role in Disaster Relief
Two weeks in September saw some of the costliest devastation recorded in California’s history. The Butte and Valley Fires, which scorched more than 138,000 acres across Northern California, left thousands homeless and caused nearly $2 billion in combined damages. When the flames died down, displaced Californians sought to reclaim their lives, only to find the process stymied by unexpected legal troubles. Discovering their homes, livelihoods, and well-being hinged on the advice of knowledgeable counsel, desperate residents sought legal help, and Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC) responded by initiating a coordinated effort to support low-income victims of fire.
Although a frequently unsung component of disaster relief, civil legal aid providers are critical for assisting individuals displaced by disasters with matters as diverse as rehoming, pursuing insurance claims, and recreating lost legal documents. With eight field offices serving twenty-three mostly rural counties in Northern California, LSNC acts as a backstop for the poor when wildfires and other disasters strike in its service area. In the case of the Butte and Valley Fires, LSNC’s Mother Lode and Ukiah Regional Offices teamed up with the State Bar of California, the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, and Northern California Lawyer Access, a lawyer referral service, to provide legal assistance to fire-affected low-income individuals, families, and seniors.
Indeed, LSNC offered some of the first lines of disaster relief. As officials worked to set up a legal aid services hotline, LSNC staffed a table at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster Relief Center for most of the initial two week period prior to the hotline’s establishment. Once the hotline was in place, LSNC legal aid advocates handled calls referred from the hotline in addition to those made directly to LSNC offices. To maximize available resources, LSNC staff also offered intensive training on housing rights and unlawful detainers to attorneys from the Northern California Lawyer Access incubator project who were assisting with fire-related matters.
Among the variety of cases handled by the Mother Lode Regional Office staff, LSNC attorneys were instrumental in securing FEMA assistance for many Californians. Qualifications for FEMA assistance range from exhausting all insurance benefit possibilities to demonstrating ownership of a primary residence, and petitioners frequently need assistance navigating the application process. In the case of one LSNC client, an insurance settlement payment made out to a deceased spouse prevented the surviving spouse from accessing and providing proof of the secured funds. LSNC was able to assist the client to execute the necessary documentation to deposit the check and proceed with the rest of his FEMA application. Another client lived “off the grid.” When the home and solar and propane energy systems he built were destroyed by the Butte Fire, he initially was denied FEMA benefits due to a lack of valid permits, a mortgage, or any way to demonstrate ownership of the structure. LSNC cleared his path to accessing benefits by advising him on how to document ownership and prove the value of his lost property.
The Ukiah Regional Office, which serves Lake and Mendocino Counties, shored up service offerings. In addition to assisting low-income and senior clients with landlord-tenant and public benefit issues, staff coordinated with the local bar association and the State Bar of California to recruit a small panel of lawyers to provide assistance in legal practice areas not generally handled by LSNC, such as homeowners’ insurance matters.
In the winter, long after the flames had been extinguished, LSNC attorneys and volunteer attorneys continued to endeavor to help victims replace essential legal forms. Prior to the fires, the Ukiah Regional Office had planned its annual “Citizenship Day” to be held in Kelseyville, a small farming town in Lake County near the fire-affected area. Despite the obstacles posed by the fires, the event was held as scheduled on November 7. Those assisted included one woman who had lost all of her immigration paperwork in the blaze as well as families who had been evacuated due to fire.
Organizations mentioned/involved: Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC)