Perhaps one of the biggest deficits in communities that need legal aid is lack of awareness. A 2016 Justice Department and National Science Foundation roundtable report found that “while two-thirds of adults have problems that can be resolved through a legal intervention, very few access the justice system. The research further indicates that the most common reason why people do not access or seek legal assistance is because they are unaware that their problems are legal in nature.”
According to Brown, even among those who seek legal help after a disaster, few are aware that it might be available for free. “I truly believe not enough people know about legal aid,” Brown told me, “but we’ve been there every single time.”
That’s not to say the work is easy, or that the legal-aid safety net can always handle the existing volume of requests. For example, in addition to a damaged office, at the time of this writing, Lone Star’s website was down. The organization was still providing updates via Facebook and still operating its hotline, but other in-state legal-aid offices, including Texas RioGrande, had to step in to help field calls from Houston-area residents. Even with their help, the real test of legal aid’s capacity will come after the rain stops.
A 2009 Urban Institute study of legal-aid efforts to address the “vast unmet need” in marginalized populations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina found “the legal needs in Gulf Coast communities grew dramatically after [hurricanes], increasing burden on legal-aid organizations that were experiencing their own impacts of the storms.” Demand balloons depending on the scope of disruption. In Katrina’s deadly aftermath, legal-aid organizations fielded requests for representation for wrongful convictions, domestic violence and other forms of abuse, and the creation of wills.
To assist with what’s expected to be an incredibly high demand for legal-aid services, one that’s commensurate with the scope of Harvey’s destruction, pro bono lawyers and legal-aid groups across the country are gearing up to send resources down to Texas. According to Cheryl Naja, the director of pro bono and community service at the international law firm Alston & Bird, “one of the things that’s wonderful about the legal pro bono community is that we are a close-knit community. … As all of this began to unfold, I’ve reached out just to try to connect with Lone Star Legal Aid; when the explosion took place, we asked, ‘How do we help?’”
As a firm with offices in Houston, Alston & Bird will have lawyers working on a pro bono basis and resources for legal-aid assistance. Naja mentioned that members of the national Association of Pro Bono Counsel also stand ready, and have coordinated grassroots fundraising activities to support ongoing legal-aid needs. Figueroa told me that faculty of Loyola University’s law school in New Orleans—who themselves found aid and shelter from Houston residents during Katrina in 2005—have similarly pledged help for Texans.
Nobody will know fully what kinds of issues Harvey will create until it’s finished dumping trillions of gallons of water on Texas. But after the waters and the sirens recede, the work of the legal-aid community in the state will have only just begun.