A recent onslaught of domestic natural disasters created acute, critical needs for legal services for people displaced and harmed by storms and fires. In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Michael struck much of Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, displacing millions from their homes. Wildfires burned throughout California and tested the capacity of pro bono and legal aid systems across the state. In 2018, Hurricane Florence flooded North Carolina, and Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida Panhandle. California again suffered wildfires, the largest and most devastating in recorded history. Natural disasters are both more common and more destructive, the “new abnormal.”
Social and economic inequities emerge sharply after each natural disaster. Low-income and vulnerable people both suffer more from disasters and experience heightened barriers to accessing the post-disaster resources necessary to survive, rebuild, and return home. Marginalized and vulnerable populations, in particular, need legal assistance and expertise to overcome these barriers.
Natural disasters also inspire law students, law clinics, law schools and law faculty to help. Law school responses to assisting with post-disaster legal needs have been diverse. Some efforts have been law student initiated, while several law school clinics have provided legal assistance in a variety of ways. Some law schools have launched clinics with a devoted budget and strict focus on disaster practice. Some took on disaster work because it was the greatest need for existing clients and communities. Others shifted the focus of existing clinics to disaster needs, and still others launched temporary clinics in various forms to respond to acute crises. Some wanted to help but did not have ready relationships or resources to be responsive.
Each of the authors has direct experience surviving natural disasters and providing legal assistance from within the academy. This article provides necessary information about the nature of natural disasters, the ecosystem of response systems, and common legal issues for law schools and clinical programs interested in providing legal assistance to disaster-affected communities. It then describes varying models of law school institutional responses to increasingly common natural disasters. Building on lessons learned through these experiences, law schools can develop a blueprint for community-engaged disaster response. Building a framework for institutional responses in the legal academy can advance and improve access to justice for vulnerable communities recovering after a disaster and can provide students with an opportunity to learn from this social justice engagement.