On September 8, 2017 Hurricane Irma smashed into our service area. Residents throughout Miami-Dade County were affected by the aftermath of the storm, but the residents of the Florida Keys were especially hard hit. Much of the housing occupied by our Keys clients was destroyed or became uninhabitable. Electrical power and cell and internet service were lost in many of their neighborhoods, and they were without these essential utilities for many weeks. Clients who were employed in the service and hospitality sectors lost their jobs or had their hours significantly reduced.
Even though our Miami office was closed for two weeks due to a loss of electricity, within 24 hours of the hurricane passing we began to receive and respond to hurricane related requests for help including requests from mobile home park residents; residents of multiple elderly housing public housing complexes which were without utilities, air conditioning, elevator access and maintenance services; veterans with FEMA applications; and a community development client with multiple issues related to its operation of affordable housing developments which incurred storm damage.
We also sent staff to our community partners in neighborhoods throughout our service area to provide on-site services because transportation was limited and difficult for much of our client community. To help meet the surge in demand, we worked in close collaboration with our community partners including the Cuban American Bar Association Pro Bono Project, Monroe County Bar Association, Catholic Charities, Florida International University, Catalyst Miami and Baptist Health System.
By late November, Legal Services had helped almost 785 individuals address a Hurricane Irma related legal problem in a variety of areas including representation with FEMA applications and denials; insurance claims and disputes; home repair issues; landlord tenant disputes; replacement of identity documents; disaster public benefit issues; and denials of re-employment assistance benefits.
To meet the continued demand for disaster related legal services and respond to this critical community need, we were awarded three significant grants from The Miami Foundation, AARP and the Florida Bar Foundation. These funds allowed us to hire an experienced, full time staff attorney who devotes her time to meeting the needs of Hurricane Irma survivors, allowing the remainder of the staff to focus on serving clients with non-disaster specific legal issues. This is especially important because our client population has increased due to both an increased need for legal services as well as a larger number of financially eligible clients.
Legal Services is also developing and presenting community education seminars to teach clients about their legal rights and how to prepare for future disasters, hold regular legal clinics throughout the communities we serve.