New Jersey State Bar Association - The voluntary Bar Association of New Jersey, serving members since 1899.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

12/10/12

Kate Coscarelli

Senior Director of Communications

732-937-7548

President Kevin P. McCann testimony before Assembly Judiciary Committee on NJSBA Hurricane Sandy Efforts

Good morning, Assemblyman Barnes, Vice Chair Quijano, members of the committee, ladies and gentlemen:

I am Kevin P. McCann, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

Hurricane Sandy left an incalculable trail of destruction, devastation and heartbreak, and the New Jersey State Bar Association knows recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy won't be easy or quick.

As lawyers, we have a special obligation to give back to the community, and as the state’s largest lawyers group we are dedicated to serving as a resource for our members, the legal profession and the public in the days and weeks to come.

I am proud to appear before you today to share our experience with you. And I am pleased to have an opportunity to thank the many people and partner organizations that worked with us to respond, including the American Bar Association, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Legal Services of New Jersey, the Attorney General’s Office, Department of Labor and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. Even more, the entire legal community, from county bar associations, and specialty bar groups, such as New Jersey Association for Justice, has come together to marshal their resources to help.

I would especially like to extend my gratitude to the over 160 individual attorneys from around the state who have pledged to volunteer their help to members of the public. Our members are proving, as they have in previous disasters, that the attorneys of this state are ready to help people whose lives have been forever altered by this storm. It is in these times of crisis, that I am most proud to count myself as a member of this great profession.

Like many residents and businesses in New Jersey, the New Jersey State Bar Association lost heat, power, and water in the days following the storm. Yet even while our offices were closed the association was preparing to activate its Mass Disaster Response Program to offer free assistance to members of the public facing legal issues as result of the disaster.

Once the offices reopened, we immediately began soliciting volunteers who would be willing to aid the public through our Mass Disaster Response Program.  We had offers of assistance and sought advice from our colleagues in the Gulf States, who have faced this same situation far too many times in recent years.  

The New Jersey State Bar Association’s program was developed following the deadly 1994 Edison gas pipeline explosion. Following that disaster, it was apparent that the legal challenges facing the survivors were immense, and they ran the gamut of issues. Individuals needed legal guidance in the immediate aftermath of the disaster to ensure their rights were protected while they recovered from the initial shock.

The association took the lessons learned from the explosion, and developed a program where volunteer attorneys would provide immediate legal assistance following any disaster on a completely pro bono basis. Sometimes that assistance has been thorough hands-on clinics at established assistance centers, but often, as now, it has taken the form of a toll-free helpline that members of the public can call to be connected with pro bono lawyers.   

Since it was established, the program has been activated several times to help the public, including following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the terrorist attack in 2001, massive flooding in 2010, and Hurricane Irene in 2011.

The way the program works is:

-           Members of the public call our toll-free hotline at 888-541-1900 and provide information about the issues they are confronting.

-           An attorney with some familiarity with those issues is asked to return the call to provide assistance and guidance and, in some cases, take further action to protect the caller’s rights. Again, all on a pro bono basis.

Examples of available assistance include:

•          Assistance with filing for emergency assistance, or pursuing FEMA appeals

•          Assistance with insurance claims

•          Dealing with landlords and other housing problems

•          Assistance with home repair contracts

•          Consumer protection matters and remedies

•          Replacement of lost legal documents, such as wills or green cards

•          Property tax and other tax questions

•          Referrals to state and federal agencies that may be of further assistance, including for those seeking unemployment insurance

On Nov. 12, our toll-free help line opened to members of the public who had suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy.

Since then, we have received hundreds of calls from people facing legal issues that range from landlord-tenant matters, to property tax issues, to insurance disputes, to the challenges of securing funds to restore lost homes.

Those pleas for help include:

A renter in Toms River asking if she could recoup the rent she paid in advance, since the apartment is covered in mold and is uninhabitable.

A union carpenter from Vineland who was trying to determine if he could file a claim for lost wages due to the storm.

A Newark family who was displaced by the storm and was about to incur substantial penalties from the city if they did not demolish or repair the property by a certain date.

The members of the public who are calling us are desperate. They are scared. And they need help right away.

We are proud that over 160 attorneys have signed up to help. We are dedicated to helping as many people as we can, but more assistance is needed. The breadth of this disaster is profound. The magnitude of it goes beyond anything we have seen before.

We encourage more attorneys to volunteer through the program. It is not a requirement that volunteers must be members of the New Jersey State Bar Association. Anyone licensed to practice law in New Jersey is eligible to participate. To further that, we continue to work with the Supreme Court and county and specialty bar associations to find more volunteers. And we remain ready to work with the Attorney General’s Office, as we did following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to provide assistance to victims.

While our volunteers are well meaning and devoted, the simple truth is that our resources are limited. Our program is not designed to provide long-term legal representation to members of the public. And for many of them, that will be necessary.

While some of the legal problems our residents face can be addressed easily and with a few phone calls or letters, some of them cannot. They will be complicated. They will be messy. They will be more than what our volunteers can do.

We urge you to encourage more people to help and to continue to look for creative solutions to these problems.

In addition to the Mass Disaster Response Program, the State Bar Association has also activated several other ways to help members of the profession and public.

Our website, njsba.com has a new dedicated section, "Hurricane Sandy Response Program," which contains information about federal, state, and local resources, including utilities, gas-finding aids and ways to donate for those who were affected by the storm. It also contains updates from law firms about how to reach displaced lawyers and firms.

We leveraged our social media outlets, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and CommunityNet, to provide updates and share information about volunteer opportunities and the recovery effort with attorneys and members of the public.

The association also created an online forum that is open to the entire legal community meant to allow people to directly connect with lawyers who have been displaced, or those who have extra office space to share.

Through our educational partner, the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education, we have been developing educational seminars meant to help attorneys learn how to help victims of Sandy.

And The New Jersey Law Center is serving as a central location where members, lawyers and the public can donate goods to help people and communities in need. We have donated dozens of boxes of goods to charities in the area, and will continue to do so.

As it has in previous disasters, the New Jersey State Bar Association and its volunteers are ready to assist people and businesses whose lives had been forever altered. While much is uncertain in times like these, I remain confident that our profession and this association’s dedication to service remains strong, and our commitment to the community is steadfast.