Legal Affairs: ABA Take; Are you legally prepared for a natural disaster?

By Rabiah Burks

American Bar Association News Service

WASHINGTON -- Sunday's tornado in Joplin, Mo., destroyed some thousands of homes and businesses.

Here are legal tips so that families and businesses can prepare now to help cope after a disaster.

Important papers should be kept safe, accessible and scanned electronically if at all possible. Think beyond birth certificates and Social Security cards, said Ernest B. Abbott of FEMA Law Associates in Washington, D.C., which specializes in emergency management and disaster law. Wills, divorce and marriage certificates, driver's licenses, plus documents that pertain to child custody, child support, and finance and insurance are equally important.

Roommates should agree

Try to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance as quickly as possible and keep track of disaster requests, said Abbot, who also used to be a lawyer for the agency. This is especially important for those who live with roommates or have a multiple-family household. FEMA provides one grant per home devastated by natural disaster -- regardless of the size or dynamic of the household. Frequently, when these types of households are split up after a disaster there could be complications when applying for FEMA grants.

"With roommates, if one of them signs up for disaster assistance, that renders the other one ineligible because they already provided a payment to one of the people in the household," Abbott said.

If you are living with roommates, make sure to have a plan in place should your multiple-family home be permanently split and you are both in need of FEMA assistance.

Prove your status

Documents that establish residency should be a high priority.

"If there are immigration issues, people want to make sure that their evidence of legal status in the country is not going to get lost if their house gets flooded," Abbott said.

These documents are essential in establishing your identity, property ownership and family status to authorities if problems arise.

Medical emergencies

If you have legal guardianship or are the power of attorney for a family member plan to have the necessary documents ready. It is useful in cases where there is a medical emergency and you have authorization to assist a family member in the midst of a crisis.

For example, if your mother becomes ill and you lose the power of attorney due to a disaster, Abbot said that it becomes more difficult to show that you are authorized to make decisions for her in an emergency.

Small businesses need a plan

For small businesses, it is important to make sure you have a plan that will allow you to find key information and restore operations as quickly as possible after a disaster.

"It is astonishing how few businesses that are closed by a natural disaster reopen," Abbott said. "Part of it is because they are not set up to find their customers records, and for law firms you are talking about protection of client records and making sure you can make your court deadlines."

In the event of a disaster, the Small Business Administration provides low-interest loans to businesses to help them recover from damages.

Do unto others

Lastly, be ready to assist your fellow neighbor if you can.

"In a big event you are not going to have government getting to you for at least 72 hours," Abbott said. "Once you have your situation stabilized, anything you can do to help your neighbor who may need assistance reduces the incredible demand for government resources."

Need more help?

National Disaster Legal Aid ( will help victims of disasters find valuable information and assistance to speed recovery from hurricanes, fires, floods or other disasters. The site is sponsored by the American Bar Association, Legal Services Corporation, National Legal Aid & Defender Association and Pro Bono Net.

Published: Thu, May 26, 2011