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Displaced New York legal groups struggle to offer storm relief

Volunteers prepare food for distribution to resident in the Red Hook Houses in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, November 9, 2012. REUTERS/K
Volunteers prepare food for distribution to resident in the Red Hook Houses in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, November 9, 2012. REUTERS/K

By Peter Rudegeair

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As thousands of New Yorkers struggle to recover from Superstorm Sandy, three major legal aid providers seeking to help victims have been hampered by their own storm-related damage.

Legal Services NYC, the New York Legal Assistance Group and the Legal Aid Society were shut out of their downtown offices when Sandy struck last week and have been operating out of satellite offices or space borrowed from other non-profit groups and large law firms.

The organizations provide a variety of civil legal services to low-income residents, ranging from obtaining orders of protection for domestic violence victims to drafting living wills and appointing healthcare proxies.

Legal Services lost power at two of its downtown locations, including the central office on Worth Street, where its telephone network and email and data servers are located.

The approximately 75 staff members affected by the outage were able to relocate to Legal Service's Harlem location, travel to outreach clinics and assemble disaster relief manuals for volunteer attorneys.

But the entire organization was without access to phone, email or electronic records for three days, said Raun Rasmussen, Legal Services' executive director. Those challenges were compounded by limited transportation and access to documents, which made it difficult to coordinate court appearances and contact some clients, Rasmussen said.

The headquarters of New York Legal Assistance Group, at 7 Hanover Square, were flooded in the storm and will be closed for about six weeks, according to the group's president and attorney-in-charge, Yishoel Schulman.

The organization's 200 lawyers have scattered to spaces in 11 law firms across the city, and the executive staff is using the United Jewish Appeal Federation offices as a base, Schulman said.

DIFFICULTIES PERSIST

NYLAG lawyers and paralegals have been offering legal services via a citywide hotline and through Federal Emergency Management Agency centers around the city, said Schulman, who estimates his employees have counseled over 1,000 people since Sandy hit.

"I don't think in my career I've ever experienced such an intense, immediate need for free legal assistance," he said.

Yet communications difficulties persist. Without phones and Internet, the organization has found it difficult to publicize its services, including its Mobile Legal Help Center, a van equipped with private meeting spaces that travels the five boroughs, Schulman said.

Legal Aid has faced similar challenges. The organization, part of a nationwide network, had to redeploy a third of its 1,700 lawyers after its downtown headquarters were flooded and three additional lower Manhattan offices lost power, said Attorney-in-Chief Steven Banks.

The group continues to have intermittent phone and Internet access, Banks said, and employees are working out of Legal Aid's other 21 offices in the city.

Since Wednesday of last week, the organization has been representing clients in courts in all five boroughs, Banks said. Its staff has traveled to New York City Housing Authority developments in Far Rockaway in Queens, Coney Island and Red Hook in Brooklyn and to various neighborhoods in Staten Island.

The staff has handled applications for emergency food stamps, disaster unemployment assistance and FEMA aid, in addition to helping residents who needed food, hot water and electricity. Legal Aid also has a van that it has been trying to take to hard-hit neighborhoods to offer legal services, but the service was temporarily suspended because of the gasoline shortage.

(Reporting by Peter Rudegeair; additional reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Eileen Daspin and Jim Marshall)

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