1 Year Later, Attorneys Still Counsel Victims
It has been has been a year since Hurricane Sandy swept through the region, but New York lawyers are still helping storm victims wade through legal problems that are growing ever more complex.
In the initial days and weeks after the Oct. 29 storm, hundreds of lawyers from the private firms and nonprofit legal services agencies confronted immediate issues such as securing temporary housing, unemployment benefits and emergency food stamps.
The next phase of the post-flood legal recovery period involved documenting the damage inflicted by the storm for residents' and business owners' flood and property insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims.
Since insurance law is not a typical area of expertise for civil legal services groups, the private bar stepped in to provide training and answer questions.
Now, lawyers working on Sandy cases say they're gearing up for legal battles that could take years to resolve. In the most common, homeowners who are already in deep personal debt are still fighting FEMA and their insurers over what they regard as unjustified underpayments or denials of storm damage claims.
Another pervasive issue is contractor fraud—hundreds of people paid for repair work that was performed poorly or not at all. Finally, many civil legal services groups report recent upticks in clients facing foreclosure, particularly in Long Island and Staten Island.
"Nobody actually feels like they've been made whole," said Lynn Kelly, executive director of the City Bar Justice Center, the nonprofit arm of the New York City Bar, which trains lawyers to provide pro bono help to low-income New Yorkers. "It's a sobering experience to see a disaster like this and realize, at the end of the day, how little help there is for people."
New York attorneys have helped thousands of Sandy clients pro bono. Hundreds of those cases are still active, many could turn into lawsuits as statute of limitations deadlines near.
Meanwhile, lawyers described clients who are growing exasperated and starting to give up hope of ever getting back into their homes.
In the past year, the New York Legal Assistance Group has provided direct civil legal help to more than 5,876 Sandy victims and has 2,145 active cases, 200 of which it just opened this month. The organization has a 25-member storm response unit, most of them new hires.