ABA helps set up hotline for islanders needing legal assistance after hurricanes

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Natural Disasters

Man with phone headset

With the infrastructure of the U.S. Virgin Islands heavily damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the ABA has helped launch a mainland hotline for those needing legal assistance.

By dialing 800-310-7029, residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands can call to request disaster-related legal assistance between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. CT, from Monday to Friday. Callers who qualify for assistance will be matched with volunteer lawyers.

The ABA Young Lawyers Division’s Disaster Legal Service Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Virgin Islands Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and the Louisiana Civil Justice Center are working in partnership to provide this assistance, the ABA announced in a press release.

The hotline is being hosted by the Louisiana Civil Justice Center in New Orleans, because stable power, telephone and internet services are not yet available in the U.S. Virgin Islands. USA Today and the Washington Post reported last week that some St. Thomas and St. John residents could be without power for months.

Jonathan Rhodes
Jonathan Rhodes is the executive director of the Louisiana Civil Justice Center. (Photo courtesy of LCJC.)

Jonathan Rhodes, executive director of the LCJC, says that disasters of this scale have a unique effect on island populations. Unlike the U.S. mainland, where people can travel to other parts of a state or across state lines to unaffected areas, “we had an entire population devastated,” he says. “The hotline has to work remotely.”

The LCJC was first established in 2005 to provide legal assistance for people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and it has continuously operated a hotline since, offering legal services to low-income and elderly clients as well as those affected by disasters like the BP oil spill. “We’re sort of always in disaster mode,” Rhodes says.

The ABA’s Disaster Legal Services Program has already established hotlines for Texas, Florida and Georgia in response to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. So when the Disaster Legal Services Program and FEMA were looking to the “usual suspects” to establish a hotline for U.S. Virgin Islanders and Puerto Ricans, the LCJC was ready and willing, Rhodes says.

Although the LCJC provides direct legal services to their Louisiana callers, their role for U.S. Virgin Islanders will be to collect intake information, provide basic information about issues like the FEMA claims process, and arrange for referrals to attorneys who are licensed to practice in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“In many of these disasters, attorneys are displaced themselves,” Rhodes says. The Virgin Islands Bar Association will be corresponding with evacuated attorneys to arrange for pro bono help.

More help will be needed in the near future, as the Washington Post and Guardian have reported that Hurricane Maria caused devastating damage to Puerto Rico on Wednesday, with flash flooding and 100 percent of residents without power.

Resources for lawyers looking to volunteer their time are available at ambar.org/DisasterRelief, hosted by the ABA’s Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness. The committee also tweets at @ABAResilience.

Removes extra word in headline at 8:00 a.m. on Sept. 21.



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