By the time that South Carolina Lawyers Weekly went to press Sept. 19, Hurricane Florence had dropped up to two feet of rain in parts of the state, leading to flooding with the potential for more on the way. The Waccamaw River has already surpassed its record high from Hurricane Matthew by about two feet, the Associated Press reports.
So far, the hardest hit areas appear to be Horry and Chesterfield counties.
Although the full extent of the damage has yet to be ascertained, damage to homes and businesses is expected to be in the millions, as river levels continue to rise.
While the primary concern of those impacted is taking care of their homes and loved ones, lawyers throughout the state are taking action to help others, doing everything from providing donations and aid to serving in the National Guard, placing sandbags, and rescuing victims.
Bar organizations are also taking the lead to serve another important function that may be less obvious at this early stage of cleanup. That said, the South Carolina Bar’s Young Lawyers Division, the Disaster Legal Services Committee, and the bar’s public services department are working to provide free legal support for those who are impacted by the storm.
“People need valid information and we need a place for them to get it that is legitimate,” said Cindy Coker, the public services director for the South Carolina Bar. “We need to help them solve their problem or point them in the right direction to get what they need.”
Coker’s responsibilities at the bar include working with online pro bono service freelegalanswers.org. In response to the storm, Coker said the website has temporarily loosened qualification restrictions to allow anyone with hurricane related questions the opportunity to ask them free of charge.
She said they also created new categories on the website to include areas of law ranging from housing to consumer conflicts to insurance to helping people fill out FEMA forms or replacing lost documents. Coker said that volunteer lawyers are needed to help assist in answering the questions that get posted in the forums, and that doing so doesn’t represent a continuing commitment.
“They’re able to assist folks without creating long term attorney-client relationships,” she said. “Unless they tell the client who they are, they’ll never know.”
Coker said she expects an influx of questions in the coming weeks as people who were evacuated start making their way back to their homes and businesses. In the meantime, she asks that lawyers in good standing who want to help out go to https://sc.freelegalanswers.org/ and register. Once registered, she said attorneys should subscribe to the categories they’re most interested in to start receiving and answering questions.
Meanwhile, the bar’s Young Lawyers Division and the Disaster Legal Services Committee are hard at work organizing and recruiting attorneys for a disaster services hotline, according to DLSC member Taylor Gilliam.
He said that his bar group is also seeking to answer simple legal questions via a telephone service, but that they are still waiting for individual assistance authorization before going forward.
“We’re ready to go if implemented, but if not, we are looking at other ways to assist disaster survivors in South Carolina,” he said. “We’ve received lots of emails from attorneys looking to help out.”
If individual assistance is not authorized on the federal level, Gilliam said the bar groups will pivot to any number of other aid ideas, including getting a group together to work on home repairs and a possible blood drive.
In the meantime, if attorneys want to sign up for this or to provide future disaster hotline pro bono service, they can do so by filling out the form available at https://www.scbar.org/bar-news/article/sign-now-disaster-legal-services-hotline/.
Gilliam said all attorneys who volunteer will be provided a free Disaster Legal Services Quick Reference Guide. A free CLE open to hotline volunteers is also expected to take place in the coming months.
Gilliam said it’s up to attorneys to help their neighbors in their time of need.
“Attorneys are well equipped and in a position to help,” he said. “Between the CLE we have planned and the handbook and manuals we provide volunteers, the system is so efficient, it won’t take much time out of lawyers’ busy practices, but it also allows the pro bono mentality to flourish.”
For more ideas about what you can do to help, go to https://www.scbar.org/bar-news/article/resources-hurricane-florence-victims/.
Follow Matthew Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney