When Disaster Strikes, Legal Aid Society Is There to Help
By Bridget Stewart, Legal Aid Society
Here in Middle Tennessee, we’ve been reminded repeatedly in recent years of the unpredictability of nature.
Disasters like the recent flooding in Humphreys County, or the March 2020 tornadoes that ripped through portions of our region, strike with little to no warning, leaving lives in upheaval in a matter of minutes. For those affected by these tragedies and others, getting back to normal often takes many months, and the financial repercussions can last much longer.
At Legal Aid Society, where I’m an attorney, our temporary Disaster Response Program was launched after the March 2020 tornadoes to assist those affected. In the months after, we helped many Middle Tennessee residents obtain the resources to help them return to normal life. We anticipate a similar surge of clients in the coming weeks — and Legal Aid Society will be more than willing to assist them as well.
Covering basic needs
Initially, the clients we work with are trying to get their basic needs covered, such as shelter and food. They may have lost vital documents, such as their driver’s license, Social Security card or insurance documents. We can assist with contacting the necessary places to get replacements for these items.
Once they’ve moved beyond this initial crisis point, clients often seek our assistance getting their homes restored to livable condition. Our ability to help greatly depends on whether the federal government has formally declared a disaster, which opens up Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding. We can assist clients in applying for FEMA funds and help with appeals if a person is denied.
We also counsel clients so that they understand FEMA’s role, and the areas in which it might not be able to help. While FEMA is a tremendously helpful program, their funds are only intended to address necessary and serious needs — but not to return homes to the way they were before a disaster. For instance, FEMA may help you replace windows in your home, but funds can’t be used to replace blinds or drapes.
Scammers and unlicensed contractors
One unfortunate side effect of natural disasters is that they bring out individuals offering repair services — who might ultimately make a disaster victim’s situation even worse. Homeowners in affected areas often receive flyers in the mail or get door-to-door solicitors asking if they need repairs done. While some may be legitimate, many are not. They can range from unlicensed contractors who don’t have the skills to do the necessary work to scammers intentionally seeking to take advantage of the vulnerable. Before handing over any cash or giving out any personal information, we suggest that homeowners verify the contractor’s license status at verify.tn.gov. Homeowners should also read our resources online. If they still have trouble afterward, they should contact us to talk to an attorney.
Issues for renters
When a natural disaster occurs, renters might feel especially powerless, particularly if their landlord isn’t always responsive to their needs during normal times. The Tennessee Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA) is a good guidebook to help both landlords and tenants understand their obligations, as well as how specific situations can be remedied. The act is only applicable to populated counties in Tennessee (including Davidson, Wilson and Putnam), whereas rural counties remain covered under common law. Our attorneys can help renters understand and defend their legal rights.
Preparing for the unknown
While we don’t know when the next natural disaster in our area will come, we know that it will happen eventually. That’s why at Legal Aid Society, we always encourage people to prepare for future severe weather events. That goes beyond having shutters and sandbags.
First, understand the limits of your homeowner’s insurance. Most regular insurance policies don’t cover flood damage, for instance, so if you live in an area susceptible to flooding, you should consider getting standalone flood insurance. Also make sure you understand what your policy covers and what expenses might have to be paid out of pocket. Read more of our insurance tips at our website here.
We also suggest that people make sure their affairs are in order. If you live in a house that is still under the name of a deceased parent, for instance, it’s important to go through the retitling process so that an insurer can’t deny a claim based on the owner not living in the residence.
If you’ve been affected by the recent flooding, or are trying to resolve lingering issues from a previous natural disaster, Legal Aid Society might be able to help. Please call us at 800-238-1443 or visit www.las.org/tornado-relief for additional information on how we can help.
About Legal Aid Society
Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands advocates for fairness and justice under the law. The nonprofit law firm offers free civil legal representation and educational programs to help people in its region receive justice, protect their well-being and support opportunities to overcome poverty. It serves 48 counties from offices in Clarksville, Columbia, Cookeville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Oak Ridge and Tullahoma. Legal Aid Society is funded in part by United Way. Learn more at www.las.org, or by following the firm on Facebook.