Natural Disaster? You May Need a Lawyer

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Think back just a few years, and what events stand out in your memory? Some really big ones may jump out at you: the 2004 Indonesian tsunami; the 2011 Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. A little more recent and closer to home: Hurricane Katrina, August 2005 (over 1800 dead, over $100 billion in damage). The Joplin, Missouri tornado, May 2011 (over 150 dead, nearly $3 billion).

But when you think about just last year in the United States, the number and frequency of natural disasters becomes more striking. The worst of 2012:

  • Hurricane Isaac, August – AL, FL, LA, MS – storm surge, flooding, tornadoes:  over $2 billion
  • Hurricane Sandy, October – entire East Coast (24 states), especially NY and NJ – storm surge, flooding, wind – 73 dead, over $65 billion (second costliest in US history after Katrina)
  • January tornado outbreak – 25 tornadoes in AR, IL, KY, MS, TN
  • February Leap Day tornado outbreak – 42 tornadoes in AL, IL, IN, KS, KY, MO, NE, TN
  • Early March tornado outbreak – 70 tornadoes in AL, GA, IL, IN, KY, MS, NC, OH, TN,  WV
  • Late March tornado outbreak – 63 tornadoes in AR, GA, IL, KS, KY, LA, MN, MO, MS, NC, NE, OH, OK, TX
  • Mid-April tornado outbreak – 114 tornadoes in AR, IA, KS, MN, NE, OK, SD, TX
  • Christmas tornadoes – 31 tornadoes in AL, LA, MS, NC, TX
  • June derecho (fast-moving storms with damaging straight-line winds) – 28 dead, nearly $3 billion in DC, MD, NJ, OH, PA, VA, WV
  • Oklahoma wildfires in August – 121 homes, 52,000 acres
  • Colorado wildfires – 12 major fires, with Waldo Canyon being the most damaging, burning over 350 homes in Colorado Springs – while the High Park fire burned over 250 homes and 87,000 acres outside Fort Collins

Does it seem like everything is burning up, blowing down, or washing away yet? How about the new so far in 2013:

  • Hattiesburg MS tornado (EF4)  in Feb – 82 injured, $28 million
  • Late May tornado outbreak in AR, IA, IL, KS, MI, MO, NE, NY, OK, PA, TX
  • Moore OK tornado (EF5) in May 24 – dead, 377 injured, $2 billion
  • El Reno OK tornado (EF5 again) in May – 8 dead, 114 injured, $40 million
  • Colorado wildfires again – 7 major fires so far, with Black Forest being the most damaging, burning over 500 homes outside Colorado Springs (again), 14,280 acres, 2 dead.

Now think beyond the horrifying pictures and news reports, to the aftermath. Many people are injured, many more have lost much or all of what they had. Does insurance cover it? How long does it take to get insurance money? What kind of red tape must be dealt with to rebuild? Think you might need a lawyer to sort it out?

Because Colorado Springs was hit by devastating wildfires two years in a row (disclaimer: also because I used to live there), I’ll use it as an example.

After the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, the city produced a Recovery Resource Guide that included information on demolition and rebuilding, consumer protection (because scam artists descended on the community), and dealing with insurance. Workshops were held by the Colorado Springs Homebuilders Association and Colorado Springs Together (an organization set up specifically to help fire victims) to help victims deal with insurance issues. Even so, a group of fire survivors organized under the name Catastrophic Insurance Complaints in Colorado Association to get the attention of politicians.

Fast forward to the 2013 Black Forest fire, with the Waldo Canyon fire fresh in the memory of local politicians and lawyers alike. Public meetings and assistance centers were set up while the fire was in progress. And the El Paso County Bar Association – already known for its Lawyer Referral Service, Pro Bono Project, and free legal clinics – had lawyers available at these assistance centers to answer questions. It also published a handout with instructions for making an insurance claim. Both the El Paso County and Denver Bar Associations set up special “ask-a-lawyer” programs for fire victims. And the Colorado Bar Association has a directory of Disaster Legal Services links.

Response to disasters isn’t limited to lawyers and politicians – or to Colorado, of course. But when the Red Cross and medical volunteers and food aid are no longer needed, the need for legal services may just be starting. Find contacts for you local bar association and other sources of legal help at CourtReference.


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