Allegheny Countyís Response to Hurricane Katrina
Allegheny Countyís response to one of the biggest U.S. natural disasters of our time has been nothing less than astonishing. On Sept. 6, 2005, just one week after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, local officials were informed that a plane of evacuees would be arriving in Pittsburgh, Pa., later in the week. Allegheny County began to develop resettlement plans for the victims to best help them deal with the shock of losing what they once called home and to help them restructure their lives.
An emergency planning meeting was held on Sept. 7, 2005, to coordinate all organizations willing to join the volunteer efforts. It was astounding to see the number of diverse agencies willing to join the efforts to provide assistance for this cause. With the full support of these organizations, the county devised a detailed plan of action, identifying legal services as one of the necessary components of this plan.
The Allegheny County Bar Association and Foundation devised a critical two-phase volunteer program that could be launched within 24 hours of the arrival of evacuees. In Phase I, each family would be assigned one attorney point person. This ďtriageĒ attorney would conduct an initial assessment of the familyís needs. After witnessing the overflow of volunteers at the emergency planning meeting, a decision was made to limit Phase I volunteers to the Young Lawyers Division. Over 60 attorneys volunteered within the first two hours of the request. In Phase II, families with unresolved issues would be matched with attorneys who have experience with the legal issues identified.
In a coordinated effort among all of the organizations, the countyís plan was to greet evacuees at the airport, provide them with medical triage, transportation to, and shelter at the Pittsburgh Project, an organization that had already prepared more than 300 beds. On Sept. 12, 2005, a one-stop service center opened at the Pittsburgh Project. The Allegheny County Bar Association set up a booth at the Center along with other local service providers including the Department of Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, PA Department of Labor and Industry, Social Security Administration, WIC, IRS, American Red Cross, Banking, FEMA, DPW, Department of Health Division of Public Records, Insurance and Public Transportation. Pittsburgh had not yet received a plane of evacuees as previously announced although a number of families had come to Pittsburgh on their own or to stay with extended family. Each family arriving at the Pittsburgh Project was assigned a Case Manager and was guided through each booth to receive assistance.
The Center provided services for three weeks. Because the clients trickled in, the Bar Foundationís emergency plan was never activated. The Bar Foundation and Neighborhood Legal Services Association manned the legal booth for the first week. As the number of clients decreased, case managers obtained contact information and the Bar Foundation followed-up with the remaining evacuees. At the conclusion of the third week, approximately 400 evacuees received services through the Center and 51 families were assisted with their legal needs through the Barís program.
The Bar Foundationís Pro Bono Coordinator was able to handle most of the clients with the assistance of Neighborhood Legal Service Association, the Homer S. Brown Association, the Womenís Center and Shelter and other members of the bar who assisted with special problems. Each family had its own tale of survival. The legal issues were far-reaching. People were concerned about their jobs, future employment, entitlement to unemployment benefits, enforcement of lease agreements, insurance coverage, status of pending litigation, mortgage payment deferments and late fees, and homeowner responsibilities. Even though Louisiana law is based on the Napoleonic Code, Emergency Disaster Training Manuals from the Louisiana State Bar Association and the Texas State Bar Association Hurricane Katrina Task Force were used to assist with answers to common legal issues.
The Allegheny County Bar Association members are commended not only for their fast response to the Barís plea for volunteers to stand ready to assist, but also for the large number of volunteers willing to devote their time and services under the circumstances. It is clear that the members of the ACBA can be counted on in emergency situations.
By Lorrie K. Albert, Esq.
Pro Bono Coordinator
Allegheny County Bar Foundation
400 Koppers Building
436 Seventh Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
(412) 402-6677 - Direct Dial
(412) 261-3622 - Fax
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