By: Melissa H. Luckman, Practitioner-in-Residence of the Disaster Relief Clinic and Daniel Strafer, Staff Attorney of the Disaster Relief Clinic
On October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy caused severe damage to many areas on the eastern seaboard. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a statewide state of emergency, and ordered a mandatory evacuation of Flood Zone “A.” Flooding is the most common natural disaster in the United States. Between 1980 and 2013, the United States suffered more than $260 billion in flood-related damages. Superstorm Sandy was the deadliest and most destructive disaster of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, and the second-costliest hurricane in the United States. Estimates as of 2015 assessed damage to have been about $75 billion, a total only surpassed by Hurricane Katrina.
As the Sandy waters started to recede, thousands of homeowners began the process of piecing their lives back together, and the disaster public service initiative of the Touro Law Center began. The Touro Law Center – Hurricane Emergency Assistance and Referral Team (“TLC-HEART”) was created within days after Superstorm Sandy by the collaboration of Touro Law Center, together with partners: the Suffolk County Bar Association, the Disaster Relief Law Center “You.Me.We.,” and the Student Disaster Relief Network. TLC-HEART, which provided referrals, assistance, and legal advice for local residents and small businesses affected by Hurricane Sandy, has now evolved into a full service Disaster Relief Clinic, offering a wide range of pro bono legal services to Sandy survivors.
Our mission at the Disaster Relief Clinic is to assist Sandy-affected New York households with a focus on Nassau and Suffolk Counties. We focus our intakes on homeowners that are seniors, working families, and households that are financially burdened as a result of Sandy. The Clinic handles Sandy-related disputes with insurance companies; individuals seeking public benefits or appealing adverse benefits determinations; home-owners contracting with, or in disputes with, general contractors; and homeowners who must engage in real property loss mitigation, such as a mortgage modification or a short sale, to avoid foreclosure.
In June 2013, approximately eight months post-Sandy, Governor Cuomo created “New York Rising,” a program that set out to centralize recovery and rebuilding efforts in impacted areas of New York affected by Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee and Superstorm Sandy. New York Rising is comprised of multiple programs geared towards assisting homeowners in various forms, including: (1) providing repair funds; (2) providing funds to demolish and reconstruct homes; (3) elevation; and (4) buyout/acquisition in which the homeowner sells the damaged property to the State. Unfortunately, New York Rising became notorious for miscalculations of awards, losing program documentation with personal information, and a very high staff turnover rate, all of which resulted in frustration and aggravation for many applicants within the program.
The Clinic has assisted over 150 applicants in the New York Rising program, particularly in obtaining grants on “hardship applications” to move homeowners in the acquisition program, and also to clarify/reduce the “Duplication of Benefits” analysis. Systemically, we provided the proposal to deduct the untaken portion of Small Business Administration Loans from the Duplication of Benefits analysis, allowing homeowners to keeps thousands of dollars of grant money. In addition, the Clinic is invited to monthly partnership meetings and serves as a source of direct referral for the program.
By January 2014, there was evidence of widespread flood insurance underpayments which resulted in flood insurance lawsuits filed in the Eastern District of New York. We remain the only non-profit legal services provider that filed flood insurance lawsuits, and to date, have successfully settled all cases for our clients, netting over $500,000.
By October of 2014, two years post-Sandy, many individuals who had received aid during Sandy began to receive notices from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) asking for the money to be returned, but in almost all cases, this money had already been spent. The process for appealing these debts was confusing and often times non-responsive. The Disaster Relief Clinic has been able to successfully appeal these debts and has also raised awareness of the many issues surrounding FEMA’s claw-back process in the media. To date, the Clinic has appealed $50,480.03 worth of debt. One client whose debt was terminated with the help of the Disaster Relief Clinic stated, “I just feel like a world of relief,” in a Newsday story.
In May 2015, nearly two-and-a-half years post-Sandy, FEMA agreed to reopen approximately 142,000 claims for flood insurance after numerous allegations of fraud, with engineering companies or flood insurance carriers deliberately altering damage adjustments which resulted in underpayments and denials for thousands of homeowners. To date, the Clinic has taken on over fifty cases for legal representation throughout the review process, and continues to receive intakes daily. In fact, we have become a direct referral source for FEMA, for those homeowners in the review process representing themselves, who feel they need additional assistance.
In the last three years since Sandy, the Clinic is proud to have spoken with over 4,000 households in Nassau and Suffolk Counties and represented over 1,000 households in full or limited scope representation, netting over $1,184,646.56 for our clients. We are appreciative and honored to have been given the opportunity to help our local community with Sandy recovery, and in return and have received heartfelt gratitude from our clients;
“I could not be happier that this clinic started and continues to run. I don’t know where I would be right now without their help. The people at Touro have changed my life more than anyone can understand. I am forever grateful for everything they have done.” — William W.
“I am very grateful for the assistance from Touro. The paperwork for the hardship application was very overwhelming, and the Touro assistance made the process much easier.” – Jackie M.
“Thank God for Touro and all the volunteers who assisted after this Storm.” – Rosalie K.
“Of all the agencies I contacted, Touro was by far the best, the most professional, and the most immediately responsive. For all of the assistance, I am very grateful.” – Madeline R.
“Without the assistance of the Disaster Relief Clinic, my wife and I feel we would have been lost in the system.” – Andrew M.
While we have many success stories to share, our work is far from over. As time continues to move forward and recovery continues to advance, the Clinic will continue to evolve to address those needs of our local community.