The Disaster Law Project



Monkeypox: The WHO isn’t even close to declaring an ‘international emergency.’

Photo: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

COVID-19 is far from over, and we are hearing news about monkeypox outbreaks in more than a dozen countries. That’s unsettling, for sure, but from a global health security perspective, monkeypox and COVID-19 don’t raise the same concerns – at least not yet. And despite some chatter to the contrary, the WHO isn’t even close to declaring monkeypox an international health emergency.

Friday morning, news circulated on some well-known twitter accounts that the WHO had convened a committee of experts to decide whether to declare monkeypox an international emergency. Only it had not. In actuality, the WHO convened a “Strategic and Technical Advisory Group” to advise on medical developments, and strategies for preparedness and response related to monkeypox. To be sure, the group does scan the horizon for potential global health threats, and in that way provides an early warning system of sorts. But today’s meeting won’t result in a declared monkeypox emergency; that’s not what STAG does. 

We have to wait and see whether the WHO convenes its “Emergency Committee” – that’s the group authorized under international health regulations to advise the Director General on whether to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. 

Even if the EC is called together, however, the outcome will still be hard to predict because they’ll have to consider not only the seriousness of the disease, but whether it is spreading across international borders. That a disease is “present” in different countries won’t automatically trigger an emergency declaration, especially if those countries can treat and contain the disease on their own. Reports that a patient in Massachusetts contracted monkeypox in Canada, for example, would certainly interest the committee, but they’ll want to know more about how and where it is spreading – did that patient contract it in Canada and simply come to the US for treatment, or is there an indication that the disease is spreading across the border? In 2013, the emergency committee declined to declare an emergency after MERS was reported in a number of countries, primarily because most cases were confined to hospitals.

The WHO has convened the EC 9 times, and it has declared 6 international public health emergencies. International Health Regulations provide criteria to guide the committee’s decision, but deliberations are confidential, and the basis for the committee’s action is often unclear. The Committee waited months before declaring an emergency for ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and of course came under scrutiny for delaying its response to COVID-19 in 2020. Those delays cost lives, so it’s possible a committee called together to consider monkeypox would feel pressure to move quickly. But at the same time, it would have to balance the likelihood that once an emergency is declared, countries will move to impose measures that will impact travel and trade – measures that might range from simple guidance and medical advice, to screening questions, to outright travel bars as we saw during COVID. The most aggressive travel restrictions can be useful in the short run, but can crush the economies of countries that rely on trade and tourism, especially those with fragile economies and limited health capacities – making it harder to contain the disease in the long run. More than $2 billion was lost in west Africa following the 2014-16 ebola outbreak, due in part to travel and trade restrictions.

Institutional considerations will also come into play. The EC routinely cautions against travel restrictions in response to an international health emergency, but countries frequently disregard those recommendations, and implement travel restrictions anyway. And the WHO doesn’t have a formal mechanism to enforce compliance – it’s an honor system, by and large. So every time the EC declares a public health emergency, it risks a reaction from member states that could undermine the legitimacy of the WHO. That’s a significant consideration for an institution that relies on trust and voluntary cooperation from member states in order to address public health emergencies.

Puerto Rico Civil Society Renews Calls for Equitable Recovery Following Governor’s Ouster

Image via

With Governor Rossello on the way out, federal officials see an opening for top-down control of Hurricane Maria recovery.

Not so fast:

“The federal government’s own track record is marked by missteps. Thousands are still waiting on FEMA for help they have a right to receive, while others risk losing their homes under a federally approved action plan. Consolidating power at the top will only deliver more of the same. What’s needed now is a major course correction that puts power where it belongs: squarely in the hands of the people of Puerto Rico.”

Our statement here:

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

The Jones Act Waiver for Puerto Rico Expires Today – Now What?

Show of hands: who here knew about the Jones Act before Vox ran a headline after Hurricane Maria?

Image result for puerto rico shipping port imagesIf you said yes, then you’re probably a maritime lawyer or shipping magnate – in which case, welcome!

If you said no, then you’re more like me – and I’m a lawyer who cut my teeth on a pretty major catastrophe in the Caribbean.  So don’t sweat it.

Anyway, I won’t belabor the details of the Jones Act now that we’re all arm-chair experts.  Besides, the purpose of this post is to explain proposed legislation that aims to reform or repeal the Act in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

But first we need to highlight some basics for friends who just climbed on board.  So let’s dive in.

The Jones Act is THIS bad

By most accounts, the Jones Act is a disaster for Puerto Rico that helped plunge the island into debt, and push the cost of living higher than most major metro areas in the US.  According to one study, it has drained $17 billion from the island economy over 20 years.

Related imageEverything from apples to i-phones are more expensive because of the Act.  Basic necessities are about to get even pricier now that Hurricane Maria destroyed the supply chain but accelerated demand.  That’s an incalculable burden for most Puerto Rico consumers whose annual income averages $18,000 per year.

Here’s how it works

The Jones Act stipulates

Continue reading “The Jones Act Waiver for Puerto Rico Expires Today – Now What?”

Rossello and Cruz sing different tunes on Puerto Rico recovery. It’s all stagecraft – and it make perfect sense.

A question posted on a FB Disaster group I belong to asked why #PuertoRico governor Ricardo Rossello and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz are sending different messages on the federal recovery effort after Hurricane Maria.  Rossello’s praising FEMA and chumming up with Trump, while Cruz is using the word “genocide” to describe the administration’s incompetence and neglect that is ratcheting up the death toll with each passing day.

Image result for carmen yulin cruz hurricane imagesRossello and Cruz sound worlds apart, but they’re living through the same catastrophe, and I guarantee they’re actually on the same page.  The rest is political stage-craft, and it makes sense.

Here’s an edit of my FB post:


Folks here surely know more about Puerto Rico than I do, but the visuals of Rossello v Cruz right now are a mirror image of Louisiana Gov Kathleen Blanco and NOLA Mayor Ray Nagin post-Katrina.

It’s about two things: money and politics.

Image result for rossello trump hurricane imagesRossello and Cruz have different roles under the Stafford Act, 43 USC 5121, which governs how disaster declarations are made, how much Washington will bill PR for the costs of recovery, and how the money is distributed.

They also have different political constituencies. Rossello represents a mix of urban and rural voters spread across the island. Cruz represents voters in San Juan. His base is broader, both geographically and politically. Her’s is more cohesive.

So Rossello has to dance more closely with the feds than Cruz because he’s the one who makes requests to Washington. He needs to stay in Trump’s good graces to get more money and resources.

Politically, he also wants credit for rescue and recovery efforts that might be taking place in certain areas, in order to maintain voter support in those regions. He wants those voters focused on the progress happening right in front of them, not the lack of progress elsewhere – and certainly not asking why *more* isn’t getting done in their own neighborhoods. If he starts complaining loudly, his constituents might grow impatient and start to change their perspective -folks who are *ok* might start to demand more from the government, and if he can’t deliver he’ll lose their support. He’s already getting hit on social media for everything that’s going wrong, so this is a real risk.

So for Rossello, it’s is all about playing nice and managing expectations.

Cruz on the other hand is one additional step removed from Washington. The money will go to PR first in terms of loans and grants, then trickle down to San Juan. So she has to be nice to Rossello, not Trump, DHS, or FEMA. And as I alluded to above, her constituents are more or less all in the same boat – she doesn’t have to play both sides of the recovery coin.

And in all likelihood, I’d bet their scripts are coordinated. Cruz has been sleeping on a cot for 8 days. Rossello doesn’t want to take the blame for that. He wants Trump to take the hit as much as Cruz does.





Turkey and the Death Penalty: Why International Law Prohibits Capital Punishment Even After the Failed Coup

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to reinstate the death penalty in response to the failed coup on July 15.  It’s been over 30 years since Turkey lawfully executed anyone, and in 2004, pursuant to a constitutional overhaul predicated on Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU, capital punishment was officially taken off the books. flag_of_turkey-svg

But the coup attempt emboldened Erdogan and other hardliners in the AKP, Turkey’s ruling political party that has origins in religious fundamentalism, and which at times seems increasingly ambivalent to the EU.  Despite monetary reforms that opened the economy, reduced national debt and increased personal spending, the AKP has dragged its feet on human rights.  It has blocked social media sites, curbed the sale and consumption of alcohol, and flirted with the idea of criminalizing adultery.  It sacked judges and detained journalists.  It tortures prisoners.

The accession process nonetheless plodded along, showing that enough members of the EU, tentatively at least, believed Turkey would eventually come around.  That bet was risky from the start, and the AKP gave Europe few assurances after the coup attempt when it summarily removed or detained more than 80,000 people from government, military and civic institutions – including relatives of individuals the AKP suspected of sympathizing with coup supporters.  That number continues to grow.

Turkey declared a state of emergency on July 20, followed by an announcement that it would suspend both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms [ECHR].  So what does all of this mean for the death penalty?

It’s hard to know whether Erdogan is serious or saber-rattling (though my bet is on the latter).  But even if he is sincere and Turkey lawfully suspended the ECHR and ICCPR, it can’t reinstate the death penalty without violating international law.  Here’s why:

  1. Human Rights Commitments. Turkey is a party to both the ICCPR and the ECHR.  The substantive rights protected by these instruments overlap to some extent.  The ECHR defines a narrower set of rights than the ICCPR, however, but is somewhat easier to enforce.  Neither instrument expressly prohibits the death penalty, though both recognize a fundamental “right to life,” and prohibit “inhumane or degrading” punishment.  Continue reading “Turkey and the Death Penalty: Why International Law Prohibits Capital Punishment Even After the Failed Coup”

Cholera in Haiti: UN Accountability Under The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

Uncontrolled vomiting hits first, along with profuse, watery diarrhea.  Within minutes, your body begins to dehydrate, your muscles will clench and cripple.  Your kidneys will fail next.  Then your brain goes into a coma, and your body goes into shock.  You’ll come out of it though, eventually, if you find treatment right away.  But if you can’t find treatment, you could die.  If treatment comes too late, you could die.  If the symptoms strike so fast that you have no idea what hit, it’s likely you will die.cholera - 5

This is cholera, a disease that has infected close to a million people in Haiti, and depending on which numbers you credit, has killed between 10,000 and 30,000.  Though easily prevented and treated, its onset is sometimes so sudden and severe that victims can die of systemic shock within an hour of the first stomach cramp.
Not a trace of cholera in Haiti had been reported in more than a century worth of health data.  But it exploded upon arrival in October, 2010.  One hospital near the epicenter of the outbreak admitted more than 400 cholera patients in a single day – just three days after the first reported fatality.  Forty-four of those patients were dead by nightfall.

It took only a few weeks for cholera to reach every corner of the country.  It seeped into neighboring Dominican Republic almost as fast, and eventually sickened people in the US, Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, and a long list of other countries across the Caribbean.  Haiti has become ground zero for the world’s deadliest cholera outbreak.

cholera - 3How did this happen?  Continue reading “Cholera in Haiti: UN Accountability Under The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement”

Party Rape: A Survival Guide (pardon the diversion, but #StanfordSurvivor)

1. You are not the only one. There were others. Or there will be. It’s only a matter of time.

2. Find them. It won’t be hard. Three degrees of separation at best.

3. These are your allies. Your new BFFs. They’ll get it even before you finish telling them. Close ranks around each other when you need to.

4. You will lose friends. Sorry. Because someone who says “I really don’t want to choose sides,” just did.

5. Cut ’em loose. I regret not doing this much earlier. Seeing “them” forced me to remember “him” every time, and took me back to the night he raped me at the lake. But I couldn’t keep bringing it up all the time, because they’d say I was crazy or obsessed.  That’s how victim blaming works.  Don’t give anyone that much power over you, or your healing.

6. “I can’t believe I just did that.” That’s what he said when I was still pinned to the floor of the car with him on top of me. Damn, he was heavy. But sure, maybe he felt bad. So what. Didn’t stop him from raping someone else.

7. When your therapist asks at your first meeting, “have you ever thought about forgiving him?” NO. NO motherfucker. The answer is NO. Then immediately run for the door. Because if that’s the first go-to question, your therapist is either a rapist, or a rape apologist. Get out before it does more damage.

PS: see a *she.*  Lesson learned.

8. But don’t give up on therapy. I cycled through 4 therapists before finding my life saver – what up Dr. Fowler! You’ll find yours. Give it time.  Take breaks when you need them.

9. Forgive him if you want, though. And bring it up at therapy if you need to. But do it on your own terms. Personally, I don’t really think about “forgiveness” – it’s just not a thing for me either way. You might be different.

10. Same with naming. Only you will know if and when it’s the right thing, for YOU. If you do it, though, prepare yourself as well as you can for the backlash. You won’t know exactly what form it will take, or what it will cost you. But it will come. It will suck. And you’ll get through it. I promise.

11. Flashbacks. They’ll knock you down. Like, physically, they knock you down. But it’s a flashback, that’s all. OK? Look where you are. Put your hand on the desk. Hard surface, cold to the touch, probably. Look at your shoes. A little scuffed, right? Reach for that book, and leaf through the pages. Hear that soft muffle? Smell your coffee. That’s how you get through a flashback. Which is all it is. And it will pass.

12. They’re like a sucker-punch though, flashbacks – because you don’t always know when they’re going to hit. There was a time as a Law Prof when I was the target of what fancy-thinkers like to call “contra-power harassment” by a group of student I’m pretty sure would have raped me given the chance. They didn’t, but I remember walking into the student lounge one day seeing them circled around the ring leader. One of them spotted me and nodded to the others. One by one they pulled back just enough to let me pass, but close enough to give me goose bumps. A stronger woman might have just rolled her eyes and kept walking, but I went straight to the bathroom and had a full out panic attack on the floor. Like I said, flashbacks knock you down.

13. That scene in the student lounge was the same thing I happened upon 20 years earlier when I walked into the high school cafeteria the morning after he raped me. He was surrounded by teammates, eager and attentively soaking up the lurid detail.  One of them saw me and nodded to the others. One by one they pulled back just enough to let me pass, but close enough to give me goose bumps.  He stepped forward and yelled, “Hey, I had to wash my car. Remember – you got out and puked all over the place. You owe me $2.50.”

14. Those two snapshots in time were close enough to trigger a flashback after 20 years. But they weren’t the same thing. It’s never the same thing. It’s not that place. And it’s not that time. It’s here. It’s now. And it’s different. Remember that. Thank you, Janet Bell, for reminding me.

15. Don’t trouble yourself with thinking you should be where I am now, because it took 25 years for me to get here. Just know that I was once where you are, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes self-loathing, and sometimes dismissing what happened, all the while shaking my head in disbelief at women I thought had found a way to get over being raped. “What the fuck is wrong with them – why aren’t they still mad?!?”

16. My anger has shifted away from the man who raped me, towards the men who are still raping other people, and the sycophants who keep making excuses for them. And I’ve learned that I was wrong about the women who found peace. They didn’t get over it, but they did move through it. You will too. Eventually.

17. He raped you. And that was about him. What happens now is about you.

18. I believe you.
19. We believe you.
20. We believe in you.

After Hurricane Sandy: Disaster Recovery Laws Shield NYC Property Owners From Municipal Penalties

Property owners and other qualifying individuals will be given additional time following a disaster to make repairs and clear their property, without incurring penalties for certain municipal violations.  Two new disaster recovery laws adopted by the New York City Council take effect August 8, 2016, and apply retroactively to situations that arose following Hurricane Sandy.

Building Code Violations: Exceptions

Int. 1037-A adds provisions to the city’s Construction and Sanitation Codes that apply for a period of time following a disaster, or while property is covered by a city disaster recovery program.

For 90 days following a “natural or man-made disaster,” penalties arising from a Construction Code violation will not be enforced against covered individuals, provided the violation is corrected within 40 days of the disaster period.  Penalties are waived for 6 months following a “major” disaster, also provided that the violation is corrected within the next 40 days.  The Building Commissioner may grant additional time on a case by case basis.

The law does not create a blanket exception to violations issued during the disaster period, however.  The exception applies only to violations connected to the disaster.  For example, Continue reading “After Hurricane Sandy: Disaster Recovery Laws Shield NYC Property Owners From Municipal Penalties”

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