Pro Bono Works: Disaster Legal Services Restored Victims’ ‘Faith In Humanity’

By Russell Rawlings

Early last October, Hurricane Matthew swept across eastern North Carolina, leaving death and destruction in its path. In this state alone 26 people lost their lives in storm-related deaths. Damage estimates topped $1.6 billion.

Forty-five North Carolina counties qualified for federal assistance, including Robeson County, where the Lumber River crested at 24 feet, eclipsing the previous record by 3.5 feet.

The North Carolina Bar Association, led by its Young Lawyers Division, worked with Legal Aid of North Carolina, the American Bar Association and FEMA to provide free legal assistance to hurricane victims through the Disaster Legal Services hotline.

This is one victim’s story, as conveyed through a family member. For purposes of privacy, neither the victim nor the attorney is identified by name.

When the hurricane came, a 200-year-old tree fell onto the house from a neighbor’s yard. It was very large. It fell into the roof, so wind and water was coming into the house. There was a lot of damage structurally to the house on top, and about two feet of flooding.

In the aftermath we don’t know how high the water will rise. We’re trying to save food. She is in her 70s and distraught, I am trying to help her.

We got some contractors’ names from the local hardware store and cards from different people. We followed what the insurance company told us, which was to make sure we got their (contractor’s) license number. We dealt with five contractors.

Only one of those five … did what they said they were going to do. … She almost lost her faith in humanity; it was not good. She is a spiritual woman. We prayed about it, and then we were reading The Robesonian. They had a number in there to call if you needed legal support with hurricane problems.

We called the number. …

My description of (our attorney); he was a godsend. He listened to the issues we had with the contractors and gave us good advice. We could not get receipts out of them if we needed them for insurance and FEMA.

He gave us good suggestions. He was very kind, very professional. He called the contractors and told him who he was. All of them of course are not coming back, but one of them came back and listened. … She had to pay other people to complete some of the jobs. It was an extra burden, and kept her out of her house.

What happened, the insurance company paid for all of the structural damage from the tree falling on the house, but underneath the house, that was not done. We were trying to get the insurance work paid for and did not focus on underneath the house.

When we finally got all of that stuff done … we got a small amount from FEMA, but it was not enough to pay for what needed to be done about the issues under the house. So we appealed: Could you please provide more money to take care of the insulation that got wet? The air conditioning and heat lines, the duct work, that all needed to be repaired. … All of this still needed to be done, and we’re trying to get it done the best we can.

That is when (our lawyer) got involved, and it was resolved very, very quickly. He talked to the insurance agent to get the final payment so FEMA could see what insurance had paid for. He took care of all of that. He would call at 7 or 8 at night; if he told you he was going to call at 11 on Tuesday, he called at 11 on Tuesday. If he said he would do something, he did exactly what he said he would do. And I’m thinking, too bad everybody doesn’t operate like that in the world.

He restored some of (her) faith in humanity. On this past Sunday morning the FEMA contractor who looks at appeals and the appeals adjuster came out and looked at everything. Whatever (our lawyer) had done in the last five days, FEMA was already moving ahead. I don’t have words to describe how professional (our attorney) was, his attention to detail, how thoughtful and kind he was, how basically he restored our faith in humanity.

We did not have the money … to afford an attorney. Sometimes you just don’t know where to turn; just maneuvering through FEMA took a lot of understanding. … For him to explain and to know what to do to help us through this process, I just don’t have the words to describe it.

This happened last October and now we’re into April. Things have been uprooted for a long time. … Truth is, if anybody deserves credit, we want to make sure we give credit to (our attorney). Because of him, we felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel in the process. Things were never totally hopeless but it was moving in that direction.

Our attorney was like a light. He probably doesn’t know how much we appreciate him.

Some 200 members of the North Carolina Bar Association provided free legal assistance to victims of Hurricane Matthew through the Disaster Legal Services hotline. The preceding story could be written about every one of them.