by Rob Crain
As we go to print on this column, we are only a short time removed from Hurricane Harvey ravaging a swath of Texas with rainfall levels never seen before in our country. The death toll continues to climb, flood waters continue to recede, and the unknown effects of disease and infrastructure-failure will soon become apparent. From the City’s founder, John Neely Bryan, to present day community leaders, lawyers help shape the city of Dallas and beyond. It may, however, be in the face of tragedy and hardship where lawyers show their true heart.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of evacuees migrated to Dallas. They were housed in multiple shelters including Reunion Arena. Such an unprecedented migration brought challenges never experienced by our city. Individuals and families were cramped on concrete floors without enough cots or blankets to go around. Many of the evacuees lost their homes, cars, jobs, and less meaningful but important items like driver’s licenses, passports, medications, clothes, and cell phones. Children were displaced from their schools and getting behind in their coursework. These immediate needs gave way to more complicated problems such as rent obligations even though their homes were not livable, insurance claims complicated by coverage issues of wind versus flood damage, and many other unforeseen legal complications. Many evacuees were swindled by the unscrupulous who routinely prey on disaster victims.
In addition to the practical and logistical challenges, evacuees faced a complexity of emotions—fear, anxiousness, sadness, hopelessness, anger, and more. The City of Dallas has a big heart. Community leaders, elected officials, and people from all walks of life pitched in to meet the needs of our new residents. It would have been easy for people to sit in their dry homes with a benign attitude for circumstances that did not affect them. But that is not how the people of Dallas respond. Over the course of months, basic needs were met, children were assimilated into local schools, assistance was provided to re-integrate evacuees to their homes in Louisiana or to make homes in new places.
Likewise, free legal aid was provided to the evacuees. Alicia Hernandez, now the DBA’s Executive Director, then the Director of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP), was on the front lines sorting through how to help. Through funding from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF), Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (LANWT) hired Maryann D’Aniello to lead their response. Maryann was no stranger to legal aid as she routinely volunteered at DVAP. For those of you unfamiliar with the organizations, DVAP and LANWT are the primary legal aid agencies for much of north Texas and beyond. They coordinate and partner on many fronts, and both are recipients of funds from the DBA’s annual Equal Access to Justice Campaign (EAJ).
Initially, Alicia and volunteer attorneys loaded up tables and chairs into a van, traveled downtown, and set up a free legal aid station on the sidewalk under a bridge near Reunion Arena. Legend has it that then DBA Immediate Past President, Rhonda Hunter, not only dispensed free legal advice, but also assisted with barbecue preparations in the adjacent parking lot. Eventually, DVAP and LANWT were allowed inside the shelter where they continued to advise evacuees, not only during the time of the temporary shelter, but also over the course of the next year while evacuees attempted to rebuild their lives. This is one of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina—legal issues for those affected by such storms continue well beyond the closing of shelters and the assimilation back into homes.
The lessons from Hurricane Katrina are serving well the evacuees from Hurricane Harvey. The Dallas Convention Center was immediately set up with cots to serve 5,000 people. Corporations and agencies like Walmart, AT&T, Verizon, Dallas Independent School District, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, the Salvation Army, and many others immediately set up stations inside the shelter to provide free food, medications, clothing, replacement cell phones, replacement drivers licenses, enrollment of students into local schools, and many other services. Likewise, DVAP and LANWT partnered with Disability Rights Texas to provide free counseling and legal advice to all those displaced. It is an impressive scene of support, collaboration, and kindness.
Due to the intense response to the needs of the evacuees, it appears the Convention Center shelter will complete its service much sooner than expected. The need for legal services, however, is expected to continue for many months.
As we enter into Fall and the coming holiday season, the Equal Access to Justice Campaign is in full motion. The Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program was started by a band of volunteers led by Judge Merrill Hartman. They initially provided free legal clinics out of a local church. In the years after, the EAJ Campaign was created to help fund DVAP. This need is greater than ever as other funding for legal aid is increasingly in jeopardy.
Service is the cornerstone of the Dallas Bar. Last year over 630 attorneys volunteered through DVAP. More than 2,466 clients were provided free legal assistance. DBA service projects are diverse and many, but what may be our most important collective effort is ensuring that those well below the poverty line have equal access to a lawyer. As Judge Hartman believed, “Justice for All” means access to the courts starts with access to a lawyer.
This month I ask you to consider your participation in our tradition of service. Not only can you make a donation to the EAJ Campaign or serve as a volunteer attorney, you can also participate in the third annual Day of Service on Saturday, October 21. The DBA’s Community Involvement Committee founded a lawyer-led day to encourage volunteering and promote good relations among lawyers and the Dallas community. You can learn more at dallasbar.org.
Your service is a pillar of our community, as well as to those who unexpectedly become part of our community. It is humbling to be witness to all that you do. Thank you.