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Kathleen Bergin

FEMA Agrees to Re-open Homeowner Claims in Puerto Rico

Collective advocacy works!

The Disaster Law Project has been supporting advocates in Puerto Rico in their efforts to make sure that homeowners who survived Hurricane Maria receive the assistance they are entitled to by law. Up to 70,000 homeowners were wrongly denied FEMA benefits because the agency required proof of ownership that either was not available, or did not exist under Puerto Rico law.

After months of back and forth, FEMA agreed to take certain steps in line with our demands. Specifically, the agency will:

  • contact individual homeowners whose application was wrongly denied to advise that they have an opportunity to re-file their claim;
  • notify homeowners that they can fill out a Sworn Declaration, and submit additional documentation to establish home-ownership;
  • waive certain filing deadlines that would otherwise bar an appeal, and;
  • direct applicants to legal aid organizations that can provide additional assistance.

Our job now is to make sure FEMA lives up to it promise so that eligible home-owners can finally start to rebuild.

UPDATE: a bill introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY 13) would avoid these problems in future disasters. The Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act of 2019 would expand the type of evidence disaster survivors could rely on to establish home-ownership, and would make benefits available to people who occupy otherwise unused property, or are homeless. A summary of the bill is  here; full text here

Thousands in Puerto Rico Wrongly Denied FEMA Aid: We’re Working to Fix That

Isamar holds her nine-month-old baby at their makeshift home in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, on December 23rd, 2017.

More than 75,000 low-income homeowners in Puerto Rico are still waiting for help to rebuild their homes, more than a year after Hurricane Maria swept the island. FEMA initially rejected their application for benefits because these applicants did not present a registered certificate of title to prove they owned the damaged property.

But these applicants did own their home under Puerto Rico law. They either acquired it through inheritance, or through a process of “prescription,” which typically involves someone making use of an abandoned building or land. Puerto Rico doesn’t require this type of property to be registered in order to establish ownership.

FEMA denied them anyway.

Thanks to the work of local advocates, FEMA finally agreed that these applicants should have been recognized as property owners all along, and will allow them to re-apply for benefits using a “Sworn Declaration” to verify ownership. But because FEMA has refused to notify individual applicants of these new developments, thousands of homeowners may never know their benefits were wrongly denied, and will continue to lose out on critical recovery assistance they are entitled by law to receive.

What we want is simple: FEMA must notify individual applicants that their benefits were denied due to the Agency’s mistake, and give them a meaningful opportunity to reapply. By one count, that’s about 77,000 homeowners. We know FEMA can do this, because it’s done it before.

Between 2012 and 2015, thousands of homeowners on the East-coast were wrongly denied insurance payouts following Superstorm Sandy. FEMA set up a claims review process to make things right, and notified 144,000 individual homeowners of the opportunity to participate in that process. That’s about twice the number of applicants wrongly denied benefits in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. If FEMA can reach out to individual homeowners on the East-coast, why can’t it reach out to similarly situated homeowners in Puerto Rico? We’ve yet to hear a compelling reason.

We’ll continue to work with organizations like Fundacion Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico, and others, until this problem is solved. In our Letter to Congress delivered on Monday, members of the NLIHC’s Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition asked for legislative oversight to ensure that FEMA is properly administering the nation’s disaster recovery program, and affording all hurricane survivors, wherever the storm strikes, to effective and equal treatment.

– Kathleen Bergin

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

UK Hearings Today On Sex Abuse in the Aid Sector

Following up on my earlier post, the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee held hearings this morning on sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

A video link of the 90 minute proceeding is here.

Testimony was provided by Asmita Naik, Independent Consultant with extensive experience within the aid sector and the UN, and Helen Evans, Former Global Head of Safeguarding at Oxfam GB.

More than 40 submissions were received as written evidence.  The full list is here.

Our submission, a collaboration between the DLP, IJDH, and Doughty Street Chambers, is here.  We are calling for an on-the-ground independent review beyond the capacity of the IDC, to investigate how safeguarding policies and procedures are being implemented in the field.  We also emphasize the need for stronger and more transparent Codes of Conduct, safer and more accessible reporting mechanisms, and referrals of criminal/civil violations to authorities in the host country, and other countries with jurisdiction over such matters.

See my twitter feed for a real-time summary of testimony: @disaster_lawyer

 

-Kathleen Bergin

 

UK’s Special Inquiry on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector

Following revelations of sexual misconduct by Oxfam personnel in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee initiated a special inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

DLP submitted recommendations in collaboration with The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and Doughty Street Chambers.

Hearings at the IDC in London begin today, but procedural rules require that all submissions remain confidential until they are accepted as evidence, which we understand becomes official tomorrow.

Until then, you can find a preview of our recommendations via this link, and pasted below.  

I will post any hearing updates on twitter.

SEXUAL EXPLOITATION AND ABUSE IN THE HUMANITARIAN AID SECTOR REQUIRES INDEPENDENT, SECTOR-WIDE INQUIRY

 

 

A coalition of lawyers from the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), the Disaster Law Project (DLP) and Doughty Street Chambers has submitted a joint submission to the International Development Committee (IDC) inquiry on sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) and related misconduct in the humanitarian aid sector. The submission sets out key changes necessary to establish effective safeguarding processes and strengthen accountability in the sector, and calls for an independent, external sector-wide inquiry.

 

“The IDC’s inquiry is an important first step, but an in-depth independent inquiry is necessary to reveal the scope of the problem, analyse how safeguarding practice are operating on the ground and ensure accountability” said Nicole Phillips, Staff Attorney with IJDH and one of the submission’s authors. “An independent inquiry is an opportunity for the UK to lead globally in ending abuse and impunity in the aid sector and rebuilding public confidence. This goes far beyond Oxfam” she continued.

 

The submission was made following a meeting of the Haiti All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) chaired by Lord Griffiths in March, where Brian Concannon, Executive Director of IJDH and Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers, spoke alongside Nick Roseveare, Director of International Programmes at Oxfam. At that meeting, Concannon emphasised that the Oxfam scandal is merely “the visible tip of the iceberg” and that the entire international aid sector is in the same boat with Oxfam over safeguarding, stating “and it’s sinking…If they don’t fix the boat, then it will sink.”

 

Both Concannon and Robinson emphasised the need for an independent sector-wide inquiry at the APPG, a position also welcomed by Oxfam. At least 23 organisations have been reported to have been implicated in SEA in Haiti, the Ivory Coast and Sudan. Robinson said that a sector-wide review would have greater credibility with the public; would better protect Oxfam’s reputation and the reputation of other aid organisations and would be far more cost efficient than if each aid organisation conducted its own internal review. While the Charities Commission investigation into Oxfam is welcomed, Robinson said that “an organisation-specific approach is not going to have the sector-wide impact that it needs to have”.

 

The Haiti All Party Parliamentary Group meeting participants, which included Lord Bates, Minister of State at the Department for International Development, were receptive to the proposals and encouraged a submission to the IDC.

 

In addition to explaining the need for a broader inquiry beyond the IDC and proposing models which DFID could fund, the submission draws the Committee’s attention to key deficiencies in existing safeguarding policies, with a particular focus on organisations’ Codes of Conduct and grievance mechanisms. The submission calls upon IDC to make recommendations to:

 

  • strengthen cooperation between humanitarian actors and local authorities in criminal and civil actions;
  • compel organizations to clearly define and expressly prohibit SEA, violations of domestic law, staff misconduct, and other actionable program concerns in a Code of Conduct; and
  • require grievance mechanisms that are transparent, accessible, secure, and capable of providing victims with an adequate remedy.

The work of IDC and any subsequent independent inquiry to “must consider misconduct towards both staff and beneficiaries, hear directly from affected communities and address not only sexual abuse but other misconduct like physical violence and corruption” said Phillips. “All abuse in the aid sector is unacceptable.”

 

Reports from the Haiti APPG can be found here and here.

 

Contacts:

 

Jennifer Robinson, Barrister, Doughty Street Chambers, j.robinson@doughtystreet.co.uk, +442074041313 (London, UK)

 

Nicole Phillips, Staff Attorney, Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, nicole@ijdh.org, +509-4645-2888 (Port-au-Prince, Haiti)

 

Kathleen Bergin, Director, Disaster Law Project, kathleen.bergin@gmail.com, +1 857-222-6176 (Ithaca, USA)

 

There’s Still Time To Apply For Disaster Benefits In Puerto Rico: 5 Things To Know

If you’re in Puerto Rico, you now have until June 18 to apply for disaster benefits.

Image result for puerto rico images

This is the second time FEMA extended the filing deadline, giving applicants nearly 9 months to submit a claim. That might seem like a long time, but it makes sense given FEMA’s slow start and lingering recovery roadblocks. FEMA took weeks to open the first Disaster Recovery Center where survivors could apply in person, and widespread power outages made it impossible for people who couldn’t reach a DRC to apply by phone or on-line.
Things are improving, certainly, and FEMA so far has processed about 1.2 million applications for individual and household benefits. But with roughly 150,000 customers still waiting for electricity, it’s impossible to say that everyone’s had a fair opportunity to apply.
FEMA has the authority to extend the deadline again, but my hunch says it won’t. By comparison, FEMA accepted applications for 6 months following Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, but we’re nearing a month past that point already for Hurricane Maria.
Moreover, even if Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rossello, formally requests an extension (which he’d have to before one is granted), FEMA could reject the request if it’s satisfied with the pace of progress and number of applications received between now and then.
So apply as soon as you can – here’s how:

  • On-line at www.disasterassistance.gov;
  • Via phone at 1-800-621-3362 (voice, 711/VRS); 800-462-7585 (TDD); or
  • In person at a Disaster Recovery Center (find one scroll to the bottom of this page).

This FEMA FAQs sheet provides more information, and a video link that walks you through the process of filing and tracking your application. Take a look, but here are five additional tips to keep in mind – offered as info, of course, not actual legal advice:

1. Get help from a lawyer by calling 1-800-310-7029. That’s the number for the Disaster Legal Hotline, a service set up by the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association and their pro-bono partners. Leave your basic info, and they’ll connect you with a lawyer who’s done this kind of thing before. The lawyer can answer questions you have about the application process, work with FEMA on your behalf, and help file an appeal if you’re denied or awarded less than you expected. It’s free for most people who call.

Continue reading “There’s Still Time To Apply For Disaster Benefits In Puerto Rico: 5 Things To Know”

Trump’s Being Sued Over Terminating TPS for Haiti. Here’s Another Way To Argue That Case

The Trump Administration will have to defend its decision to end Temporary Protected Status for Haiti in court. The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund brought suit last week, maintaining that the Department of Homeland Security had no legitimate reason to end TPS, but did so out of discriminatory bias towards Haitian immigrants.

I won’t use this space to recite the tirade of reprehensible slurs coming from the White House. They’re outlined in the Complaint, and summarized by Jacqueline Charles at the Miami Herald.

The LDF bases it’s claim on the equal protection component of the 5th Amendment’s Due Process Clause.  The best chance of winning will come if LDF can show that Trump’s prejudices steered the outcome over at DHS.  ConLawProf blog explains a couple nuances on how the case might proceed.

Putting aside the constitutional question, though, it’s possible that DHS violated the TPS statute.  DHS ended TPS citing progress Haiti had made recovering from the 2010 earthquake. But under the statute, DHS should have assessed whether additional conditions, unrelated to the earthquake, created an intolerable risk of harm for returning immigrants.

Framing the DHS decision as a statutory violation has strategic benefits because questions of subjective intent and causation that arise in constitutional cases are notoriously hard to prove. And however solid the record, a judge could bristle at having to call out a President for intentional bias.  But those concerns are not an issue under the statute. The goal is simply to figure out what the language requires, and ask whether DHS followed the rules. Based on what we know so far, there’s a good chance it didn’t.

Here’s how the statute works.

Continue reading “Trump’s Being Sued Over Terminating TPS for Haiti. Here’s Another Way To Argue That Case”

Will TPS For Haiti Be Renewed: Three Things To Know


Image result for save tps haiti images
Seven days. 

The Department of Homeland Security will decide by November 23 whether 59,000 Haitians who benefit from Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, will be allowed to stay in the United States, or will be forced to return to a country that is incapable of taking them back.

Haiti was initially granted TPS in 2010, following a catastrophic earthquake that, according to government figures, killed up to 300,000 people and displaced more than a million.  TPS was reauthorize several times after that, following a record breaking Hurricane and cholera epidemic introduced by UN peacekeepers.  Hurricanes Irma and Maria compounded the damage from all of this.  

Conventional wisdom says that TPS for Haiti won’t be renewed past its expiration on January 22. Here’s why:

Last week DHS declined to extend TPS for Nicaragua, which, like Haiti, is perpetually hammered by natural disasters. In October, the State Department called for an end to TPS in Haiti and several Central American countries.  And last May, then DHS Secretary John Kelly reluctantly granted Haiti a 6 month extension, warning Haitian immigrants to use that time to “handle their affairs,” and arrange departures from the U.S.

A handful of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who support TPS see where this is headed.  They’ve pressed DHS for an extension, and introduced bills to provide TPS beneficiaries with Permanent Residency and a path to citizenship.  But they’re up against a Trump Administration bent on banning most immigrants from entering the country, and expelling those who are already here.      

I understand it looks bad.  However, none of these factors, definitively at least, closes the door on TPS for Haiti.  To keep things in perspective, here are three things you should know.

1.  Nicaragua Didn’t Comply With The TPS Statute, But Haiti Did

Under the governing statute, TPS is permitted when conditions in an immigrant’s home country make it too dangerous to return.  But in cases that involve an environmental disaster, DHS cannot authorize TPS unless the nation at issue requests it.

Continue reading “Will TPS For Haiti Be Renewed: Three Things To Know”

How To Topple A Building

How to topple a building: mix extra sand into the concrete so the cinder blocks are more filler than stone, and skip the rebar all together.

That’s how buildings were constructed in Kathmandu, Port au Prince, Izmir, and any of a dozen cities like them, and why earthquakes there were so deadly.

It’s not for lack of knowledge or building codes. These places had both. What they didn’t have was political or social stability, which made it easy to ignore the lives of poor people whenever money could be made.

Greedy contractors and corrupt public officials are certainly to blame. But look deeper and the fault lines start to blur. Maybe the building inspector took a bribe because he didn’t earn enough money to feed his own family. Or the migrant who came looking for work entered the lease even after hearing that the building next door collapsed a few nights before seemingly out of no-where. But really, what choice is there when all the buildings are the same? When this is all you can afford because the little money you make goes back to the family you left behind in the village stricken by drought.  “Structural defects” describe more than the buildings in some of these places.

So, when the earthquake hits, the buildings fall down. Hard and fast. And lots of people die. In a moment.

————————-

This is what I fell asleep thinking about last night. So you can imagine my surprise when the boys and I happened upon an “earthquake exhibit” at the Science Center this morning. No kidding! The exhibit lets you construct a building out of little blocks on top of a platform that shakes when you turn it on. So here’s a clip of the two buildings we made. We used plastic spokes as rebar in the building on the left, and no rebar in the one on the right. See if you can count how long the one without rebar remained standing after we turned the machine on at the 4 second mark.
-Kathy Bergin

NYC Passes New Disaster Legislation After Hurricane Sandy. Now The Hard Part.

Property owners and other qualifying individuals in New York City will be given additional time following a disaster to repair and clear their property, without incurring penalties for certain municipal code violations.  New disaster legislation passed by the City Council takes effect August 8, 2016, and applies retroactively to fines imposed after Hurricane Sandy.

Sandy - homes destroyedI’ve posted a detailed summary of new developments here.  In this post, I’ll explain why the scope of protection under one of those laws, Int. 1037, depends on how quickly and effectively the City implements a recovery program following the next major disaster.  The record from Hurricane Sandy is not encouraging, but perhaps the benefit of that experience will produce better results in the future.

 

 

A Quick Review of Int. 1037

Continue reading “NYC Passes New Disaster Legislation After Hurricane Sandy. Now The Hard Part.”

What is a Disaster Lawyer, Anyway?

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.  Continue reading “What is a Disaster Lawyer, Anyway?”

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