I get this question a lot. For me, it’s someone who uses the law to empower people whose rights are overlooked or outright violated in a disaster. We advocate for people who were socially vulnerable and politically marginalized even before the disaster, and therefore especially susceptible to human rights abuse after a disaster.
Hurricane Katrina was my first direct experience with a mega-disaster, and it’s important to be clear about what happened. The strength of the storm and where it landed are accepted as reasons so many people died, or struggled to stay afloat in the drawn-out aftermath. But life was fated for people across the Gulf Coast long before Katrina, by government policies that determined who lived where; whether and when they could escape; and if those who made it out were encouraged to return home. I saw the same thing play out in Haiti, and witnessed it from a distance in the Philippines, Nepal, and virtually everywhere else an earthquake hit, a hurricane struck, or a drought crept in. The most important thing I learned from Katrina and these other events is that disasters do the most damage along political fault-lines that already exist.
I also learned something else from Katrina. There are people we consider “disaster experts,” and others who we call “legal experts.” Both groups do important work. But Katrina drove home the importance of bringing these fields together under a banner that can be described as “disaster lawyering.” And that’s what I do. I’m a disaster lawyer.
What legal issues face disaster survivors? The answer is endless. But in every disaster, we know that some survivors will be wrongly denied aid or compensation they are entitled to. We also know, inevitably, that aid will be terminated for many survivors without proper warning, and long before the government has fulfilled its obligation to implement durable disaster solutions. Here are just a few examples of disaster lawyering on these topics:
Nepal earthquake: For five months, lawmakers in Nuwakot district held up emergency aid to nearly 1000 families as they fought over the terms of the government’s response package. The Nepal Human Rights Commission deployed a Mobile Legal Clinic to the region so its staff could meet with villagers and document their hardship. The staff then took these complaints to district lawmakers and emergency personnel, and negotiated a resolution to the political infighting. Consequently, nearly 4000 people received monetary compensation for temporary shelter along with ID cards that qualified them for additional aid.
Hurricane Sandy: Following the hurricane, Touro Law Center commissioned the Hurricane Emergency Assistance and Referral Team (TLC-HEART). Together with legal aid and pro-bono attorneys across New York and New Jersey, the group provided direct services to low-income residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the storm. Among their long list of achievements, the group netted more than $500,000 on behalf of home-owners who were wrongly denied insurance pay-outs under a FEMA flood insurance program that was mired in fraud.
There are other examples. In Haiti, I was on the team of lawyers who won an order from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights directing the government of Haiti to improve conditions in earthquake camps, and to end an epidemic of violent and inhumane forced evictions from those camps. In New Orleans, the Hurricane Katrina Law Clinic won a $2.6 million settlement against the US government after it wrongfully terminated rental assistance to low-income families.
This work is hard. We log more losses than wins, and few of us get paid for doing it. But it’s meaningful work that matters to people whose lives have been upturned by a disaster. And so we carry on . . .