When Two Crises Collide
There’s a hurricane-sized elephant in the access-to-justice room. As the climate continues to deteriorate, so do our chances of meaningfully closing the access to justice gap.
Justice is not served
It’s already well established that America has a justice problem. A recent IAALS study found that 66% of Americans had at least one legal problem in the last four years, with just 49% of those legal problems coming to complete resolution. According to LSC’s 2017 Justice Gap Study, the reality for very low-income Americans is much worse. There, researchers estimated that 71% of households at or below 125% of the federal poverty level had at least one issue that year — with just 14% of those issues receiving adequate legal help.
In “blue sky times,” those figures are striking enough. Unfortunately, natural disasters have the tendency to exacerbate existing legal problems and bring on new ones. They also push those somewhat-comfortably on the other side of it down into poverty, increasing the likelihood they’re subjected to additional legal problems that will likely go unaddressed.
As significant weather events continue to become more frequent and severe over time, disaster-related legal issues will likewise increase — and continue affecting low-income Americans in greater numbers.
This map reflects a snapshot of the median U.S. Household Income in 2018 and how states compare to one another:
Publicly available Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data on valid registrations for assistance after disasters makes a great proxy for understanding how big of an impact disasters have on the most vulnerable. Each registration represents an individual or household that has been verifiably impacted by a natural disaster.
The data show there have been a whopping 17.8 million FEMA registrations since 2002 from folks seeking basic assistance through FEMA IHP. Referring back to the previous map, it’s clear lower income states bear the brunt of natural disasters in the U.S., and those lower income populations already juggle more legal problems in their daily lives.
In theory, each of those registrants has at least one new legal issue to deal with because of a disaster — interfacing with the agency itself can be a complex task. Of course, many will resolve that issue on their own or with just a little guidance.
But more likely than not, those affected will have other immediate legal needs directly related to the disaster like dealing with their insurance company, managing relationships with contractors, or making sure their landlord makes proper and safe repairs to the home they rent. Longer term issues like successions, foreclosure, and bankruptcy are also extremely common in the wake of natural disasters.
Our biggest threat
Hurricanes specifically account for over 75% of all FEMA IHP registrations.
A look at that on the map shows these systems really do have an outsized impact on lower-income communities, with each event having the potential to create millions of new legal problems:
And according to FEMA data summarizing the number of federal disaster declarations, they’re increasing in frequency and severity:
All of this foreshadows a massive challenge in our efforts to close the justice gap.
Preparation is key
Ultimately, hurricanes and all natural disasters are a huge impediment to closing the access to justice gap. And so far, this conversation does not take into account legal issues that don’t yet exist but are certain to arise with other climate-related catastrophes like droughts and food shortages.
We must encourage and facilitate data collection, sharing, and research on the intersection of natural disasters and legal needs. With a more complete picture on the true impact disasters have on the occurrence of civil legal issues, we can build readiness and response strategies that meet the moment and support our communities in some of their darkest hours.
We must invest in preventative civil legal aid — even in areas not currently prone to major natural disasters. Programs like LSC-funded Southeast Louisiana Legal Services’ Flood Proof project and Equal Justice Works’ Disaster Resilience Program are important models for mitigating disaster-related legal issues. Expanding resiliency-related service eligibility for people beyond 125% of poverty would also help those not already in poverty stay out of it.
We must build resilient networks of partners ready to respond. The ABA Young Lawyers Division’s Disaster Legal Services program partners with local programs to coordinate disaster legal services for low-income survivors, but all communities should be engaging in building the training and infrastructure required to tackle the surge in post-disaster civil legal aid problems.
A more strategic now means a more resilient future.
To see how your community has been impacted by disasters over time, check out the U.S. Natural Disasters and Poverty Dashboard created by the author.