Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County Developed a Model for Legal Aid in the Aftermath of Disasters

Flickr/Bob Schoenherr

The devastation caused by natural disasters has a disproportionate impact on low-income people, who often lack the resources necessary to rebuild and recover.

In California, many low-income people who lost their home or place of employment in the recent fires were left stranded without a place to live and without the income they depended on to provide for their families. Legal services can play a critical role in helping connect these individuals and families to critical benefits, mobilizing pro bono attorneys, and protecting low-income survivors from illegal evictions, rent gauging, and scams that often follow a disaster.

In the aftermath of the California wildfires, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA) immediately stepped in to help, spearheading a local effort to address the needs of low-income victims.

NLSLA mobilized quickly — in less than a week, the organization created a hotline for fire victims and put its attorneys on rotation at disaster assistance centers. They reached out to survivors of mobile home parks destroyed in the fire, day laborers, and others who worked in areas that burned to the ground. They helped people resolve problems with FEMA, unemployment, welfare, food stamps, medical insurance, landlord-tenant issues, and other civil legal needs, while keeping an eye out for systemic issues.

NLSLA also created critical documents and made them available, along with other important information, on the organization’s website. Survivors and advocates could go to the website to find updated information and helpful, easily downloadable documents in English and Spanish on replacing important documents, tenant rights in the aftermath of disaster, accessing public benefits, and FEMA help. To quickly train pro bono attorneys and other legal services staff, NLSLA created up-to-date video trainings.

This was not the first time NLSLA jumped in to help after a natural disaster. The organization built expertise in this area first with the Sylmar earthquake of 1971 and then with the 1994 Northridge earthquake, when it mounted a response that became a national model. Years later in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, NLSLA was called upon to help. The organization scrambled to update the materials it had created in previous disasters, and its attorneys quickly flew to the Gulf Coast, where they met with the bar association, lawyer referral services, legal aid organizations, and Tulane Law School.

NLSLA is one of the 11 organizations nationwide to recently receive a disaster relief grant from LSC to provide legal aid in the aftermath of natural disasters. The organization continues to develop and refine its services to victims of disasters, playing an important role in helping people with their immediate needs and with the longer, more difficult process of rebuilding their lives.

This post was written by staff at NLSLA.