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After the Hurricane: How You Can Be of Service

T he water rose over the street curb, slowly climbed past the seventh sidewalk section, then the sixth, close to the fifth: half way up the lawn. We moved valuables upstairs, lifted furniture onto paint cans, rolled rugs off the floor, and collected towels and buckets for possible use later. We considered staying up all night to see if the floodwaters would creep closer to the front door, which we sealed with plastic, wet towels, and tape. Fat chance, as we were too tired. We awoke the next day to see the water had receded back to the street. That Sunday night, August 27-28, was the “high water mark” of our concern and we had escaped any flooding.

After we moved our valuables downstairs and lowered our furniture to the floor, we looked for ways to help others. My wife’s cousins’ houses were flooded, again, but they had their responses well practiced and did not need further help. Having cleaned up my own flooded belongings from Katrina 12 years earlier, I had no stomach for hauling out other people’s wet personal effects. But I could offer legal services to evacuees.

ACC’s pro bono committee chair circulated information about ways to volunteer, and I used them to contact the Houston Volunteer Lawyers (HVL) and find its online signup for volunteer times. The first few days were totally filled with attorneys seeking to help, showing the outpouring of support from Houston’s attorneys, but additional days were added later, and I registered for the afternoon of September 6. HVL and Lone Star Legal Aid have very good materials on the types of questions volunteers might face and ways to provide legal assistance to evacuees, which I reviewed before showing up for service at the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter.
Questions commonly asked after hurricanes
  • How do I request assistance from FEMA and when should I request it?  
  • How can I get help because I cannot get to work?  
  • How can I replace lost documents, like social security card or drivers license?  
  • Do I need to pay rent if I cannot live in my apartment?  
  • Will my homeowners insurance policy cover water damage caused by both rain through a damaged roof and floodwaters?
All these answers often depend on specific circumstances. Often the best answers that volunteer attorneys can provide are referrals to other attorneys with more expertise in these areas. 
When I arrived, I was patted down for weapons (Texas is a concealed carry state) by police officers. I found the table of three attorneys from Lone Star Legal Aid and two volunteers about to end their shifts. Ironically, Lone Star’s offices caught fire Sunday night and the attorneys themselves were evacuees. While they finished with their prospective clients, I talked to the paralegal about what they wanted me to do: for each person I interviewed who could be a prospective client for Lone Star, they wanted me to fill out a sheet with his or her personal information, income qualifications, issues, and the legal information I provided.

As soon as I sat down, one of the legal aid attorneys asked me if I could help her with a question about a flooded car. The evacuee discovered that his car had flooded before he bought it used, which he didn’t know, and now the seller wants him to continue paying his loan, though his car is now a total loss from the flood. It sounded like something a consumer rights attorney could handle on contingency, so we advised him to contact the bar association’s referral service.

While the legal aid attorney left to check on something, her next “guest” as evacuees were called, turned to me and asked about his rights to his mother’s estate when he was told by his sister that she was the sole heir. Even though this had nothing to do with Harvey, I gave him some general information, though this area of law is not my forte, as I’ve recently dealt with some family estate matters. I said there might be ways to verify what his sister told him, but he needed to talk to probate and estate attorneys who are well versed in this area.

Next, a 60-year-old man sat down and asked about his mother’s flooded condominium, which had never flooded before, and she had no flood insurance. She lived out of state and allowed him to live there, rent-free, in return for general renovations –– so no lease. I explained how FEMA has different types of assistance for him as a “renter” or occupant, and for his mother, as the “owner,” a concept that can be difficult for some to comprehend. He had several questions about what evidence he needed to show FEMA and how he could obtain it in a flooded condominium.

A couple of other guests asked general questions before the next shift of two volunteer attorneys sat at the table. Everyone, both volunteers and guests, expressed good spirit and appreciation that they had shelter from the storm and that we could help them with their problems.

The following week, September 14, I volunteered at the NRG Arena, next to the football stadium. This time, the legal aid tables were in the same area as the guests’ living areas, one for families and one for single men, but I was not patted down. At the George R. Brown Convention Center, the guests’ living areas were isolated from the volunteer tables. Things were a lot quieter at NRG and very well organized, with play areas for children, plenty of donated books from the public library and private contributors, and counseling areas for people concerned about where they could go after the shelter closed. A homeless man stopped by to talk, but had no legal questions. However, he said the shelter’s food was pretty good.
"Everyone, both volunteers and guests, expressed good spirit and appreciation that they had shelter from the storm and that we could help them with their problems."
A guest approached the volunteer table with her mentally-handicapped son. She needed to move into a clean apartment, but the apartment complex wouldn’t sign a lease until a credit check was run on her son. His credit was blocked in Equifax and she could not contact them, with all the other problems Equifax was having. In addition, she reported to police that her son’s identity was potentially stolen by someone in the group house he lived in before the flood, and the police opened an investigation. After hearing her version of the facts, I wrote a short statement to the apartment complex asking it to disregard the son’s credit history, because he would not help pay the rent and if his credit block was removed, that could lead to his further victimization and impede the police investigation. I told her to bring that statement to the apartment complex and see if they will give her the needed housing. Her son then asked me to take his picture.

Another guest asked how she could get FEMA assistance for losing all her belongings in a flooded car owned by her daughter. She was homeless, but had been living out of the car before the flood. Now she was in the shelter, applying for any assistance available and wondering where she would live after the shelter closed. FEMA has assistance for personal effects losses, so I told her to apply for it, even if she did not own the car.

A woman asked how she could enjoin her landlord from renovating her block of six houses that would allow them to continue as drug houses and brothels. Toward that end, she also wanted to keep FEMA from giving him money to renovate them. After some questioning, it turned out that the houses were damaged minimally by the flood, but had a long history, in her eyes, of criminal activity. In addition, she planned to move elsewhere, but complained that FEMA would not give her much money to do so. Since she planned to move away from any standing, I told her that she had no chance to enjoin the activity, but she could call the police or city housing authority to report the decrepit conditions. She also would have a hard time getting more money, because FEMA would help her return to her former living standards, but would not improve them. Since she was planning to move, I suggested she focus on that and leave her former place behind.
"FEMA has assistance for personal effects losses, so I told her to apply for it."
Toward the end of my shift, there was not much activity, so I talked with the Lone Star Legal Aid Staff Attorney about his personal and professional life. He escaped flooding, but was working without an office due to the fire at the Lone Star offices. He specialized in landlord tenant issues and other property assistance, including good, specific knowledge about disability benefits and how they interact with food stamps. He stays away from family matters and other more emotional legal areas. Just as I was about the leave, the woman who wanted to enjoin her landlord came by with a big smile on her face. She said that she called the housing authority about her former home and thanked us both, as he gave her the housing authority phone number, for giving her the information that allowed her to help her former neighbors.

As I left the NRG Arena, I felt gratified that I could help in some small measure the guests who were victimized by Hurricane Harvey. Even though I did not practice in these legal areas during my in-house work, I could apply general legal principles to most of the questions and refer the guests to people with the expertise to help them. Other in-house attorneys should not think that they don’t have the expertise needed to answer questions; often people merely need comforting words and some confidence boost that their problems can be addressed through the institutions set up to help them.

For more information on how you can offer your support, as well as links to important resources, visit the Houston Chapter's website.

About the Author

R Scott McCayR Scott McCay is a retired senior counsel from Chevron, where he worked for 35 years. At the end of his career there, he handled deepwater Gulf of Mexico transactions and regulatory compliance. He is now an adjunct professor teaching a course on that subject at the University of Houston Law Center. He also handled environmental and litigation matters and was active in volunteer and pro bono efforts.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.