Tennessee’s Disaster Response
Author: Erik Cole, Executive Director of TALS
“How high’s the water, mama?”
As I have watched the flood waters rise in Lake County, then Dyer County and now in Memphis, I can’t get this old Johnny Cash refrain out of my head. In Memphis at least, the Mississippi crested at 48 feet, just below the 1937 record flooding level. Tributaries are backed up into neighborhoods and the water won’t have anywhere to go for days, maybe weeks.
In East Tennessee they have faced additional struggles following the tornadoes that ripped through Hamilton, Bradley, Washington, and other counties.
May has once again brought unpredictable weather and widespread destruction to the Volunteer State. As incredible as it sounds, almost one year to the day after the May 2010 floods, violent weather and heavy rainfall have again left their scars all across Tennessee.
Here we go again
As of today, fifteen counties have been declared federal emergency areas by FEMA as a result of storms and flooding that began in late April. And currently, a federal state of emergency is still active for four West Tennessee counties who are still in the middle of a major disaster event as water levels rise in the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The storms and flooding have left hundreds of Tennesseans displaced, thousands of properties damaged, and whole communities disrupted.
Once again, Tennesseans are stepping up and responding to help their neighbors. Right now, that means folks are filling up sandbags, mucking out houses, and staffing Red Cross shelters as survivors try to get their basic needs met. However, as we have all learned over the past few years, disasters are marathons and not sprints. The recovery process can take months, even years….and for some people, the financial and physical matters are easier to handle than the emotional strain.
Disaster Legal Services
Over the next weeks and months, victims will need more skilled assistance in the form of legal advice and trained case management to put their lives back together. TALS, along with our partners, has initiated the statewide Disaster Legal Services Hotline at 1-888-395-9297. To staff the hotline and back up the legal aid lawyers working with flood victims, we need pro bono assistance. Private attorneys looking to get involved can go and register to be a Disaster Legal Services volunteer at the TBA website or email Sarah Hayman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a service to volunteer attorneys, the TBA, TALS and TN legal aid offices have also been working to create free disaster related trainings and materials. Please take advantage of FREE CLEs and trainings offered online.
Also, this year, a new tool, www.onlinetnjustice.org is available to provide legal advice to flood and storm victims. Already over 230 attorneys have signed up to answer all types of legal questions over the Internet. We have added a disaster category and are taking disaster-related legal questions over the site as well. Right now, questions are being answered in an average of about 8 hours!
Immediate needs: shelter and avoiding fraud
The immediate assistance that we, as legal aid providers and lawyers, can provide during the immediate disaster response phase is to help people make positive, informed decisions about their shelter, their insurance and federal benefits, and their steps to recovery. We can help them avoid fraud, con-artists, and mistakes caused by moving too hastily to rebuild or repair their homes.
Attorney General Bob Cooper and Gary Cordell, director of the Department of Commerce and Insurance’s Division of Consumer Affairs, have warned all Tennesseans to be alert to potential price gouging, particularly in East and Southern Tennessee:
Attorney General’s Price Gouging Warning
Two community education pieces are particularly helpful to victims during the disaster response phase. They are:
“What you need to know before you repair or remodel your house”
“Renter’s rights after a Flood”
Disaster victims’ need for assistance from volunteer attorneys will not stop in the next couple of weeks. As people get their basic needs met, they will begin to realize that they have serious financial and legal issues to address. This requires a long term commitment from Tennessee’s lawyers. The challenge we face in the coming months is to remain engaged as the waters recede.
At times this May has felt like ‘deja vous’ all over again. However, Tennessee is a better prepared state this time around. Our organizations, government, and citizens have developed new systems for managing and responding to disasters. And we have proven to ourselves that we can band together and rise up in the wake of a storm.
- Erik Cole
Erik Cole, Executive Director of TALS
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