Ensuing Hurricane Legal Issues Facing Survivors

Ensuing Hurricane Legal Issues Facing Survivors

Written By: Seth Todd

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have wreaked havoc over the Texas coastal region and the entire state of Florida. As relief efforts are in full swing and everyone pitches in to help, many people forget the legal troubles that may await the victims of these devastating storms. As victims begin to rebuild their lives, the legal battles could well outlast the physical rebuilding of the towns and cities they call home. While physical donations pour in to help those effected, legal assistance will be needed to help regain the monetary losses victims suffered. The hurricanes themselves will become after thoughts before the legal fight has even really begun. Legal issues that arise following hurricanes range from insurance claims, FEMA disaster relief grants, mortgage issues, and landlord-tenants problems, just to name a few.

Insurance claims are the most glaring issue that pops out to you when you see the miles and miles of devastation left by hurricanes. However, roughly twelve percent of Americans actually have flood insurance. [1] Many people still need to call insurance carriers and begin the process, as damage caused from rain and wind may be covered under their home insurance policies. [2] Victims wait too long to begin the filing process, and this could be exceptionally detrimental in Texas. Texas recently passed legislation that limits the amount of interest a plaintiff may receive from insurance companies that fail to pay claims, and makes plaintiffs give more advanced notice when suing insurance companies. [3] While insurance inspectors are unable to review damages until water has receded, it still benefits victims to call in advance in order to get a place in line because most insurance companies work on a first come-first served system. [4] Courts will be flooded with insurance claims for years to come, so victims will have to wait their turn in order to get justice.

Everyone sees that FEMA tents and calls for aid whenever disaster strikes, but is it really just FEMA passing out money to help rebuild communities? Actually in order to qualify for a FEMA disbursement, you actually have to file for a Small Business Loan beforehand.[5] If you meet the criteria to be granted a Small Business Loan, you may not be eligible for a FEMA grant. This leaves you in the sticky situation of whether to take a loan out or try to rebuild all alone. Survivors of Hurricane Sandy were faced with the dilemma of taking on a loan with a $900 monthly payment on top of the mortgage for the house they rebuilt.[6] While the Small Business Loan may help victims get on their feet, it could come back to haunt them and possibly lead to bankruptcy. If a victim is unable to qualify for a Small Business Loan, then they could be eligible for a FEMA grant. However, after fighting through the process of actually applying and receiving the money, the victim may not be home free. After Hurricane Katrina FEMA actually requested for money BACK from indigent victims who had been granted rebuilding loans. [7]

After a hurricane wrecks a city or town, habitable shelter may be hard to come by. If you are a tenant, do you still have to pay rent? Based on Texas law, tenants may have to. [8] Depending on the lease terms tenants may be able to opt out of their lease or try to negotiate lower rental amounts.[9] It still may be hard to return home, as many places are still too water damaged to enter and will be uninhabitable for some time. [10] The good news for victims with a mortgage is that a 90 day grace period has been announced for those unable to pay their mortgage after being displaced by the hurricanes.[11] While victims owning homes may be fine, renters face an uphill battle in finding sustainable housing given the devastation that occurred, and even if they are able to break their own leases, it may be hard to find housing going forward.

Many renters may face a landlord that is unwilling to negotiate on price, but by law they may be required to lessen the rent based on the damage that was sustained.[12] Other tenants may also run into the landlord essentially kicking them out due to family or friends needing a place to stay. By law, landlords are unable to do so. They must first give written notice of the eviction to the tenant, and then take the action to eviction court. [13] If they are allowed to return to their rented homes, renters might run into damaged tangible property that is unsalvageable do to damage caused by the hurricane. If they have renter’s insurance it should cover any items they may have lost. If not, the landlord may also have coverage that could help offset some of the cost of rebuilding all of the victim’s tangible property.[14]

Returning to normalcy is easier said than done. As people begin to attempt to rebuild their lives, they will face many legal struggles on the road ahead. With appropriate legal help, the rebuilding process can be run more efficiently and ensure that victims get what is rightfully theirs. The items discussed above are only a few of the legal problems that could arise. It will take years to clean up from the hurricanes that have devastated Texas and Florida, and even longer to clear up the numerous legal issues that were left in the wake of Harvey and Irma.

If you are currently an attorney and are wanting to help in the disaster relief efforts and what is surely going to end up being years of legal battles, there are a variety of resources and ways in which you can help! The American Bar Association has set up numerous relief resources that detail how you can help in various capacities. If you or an attorney you know would like to get involved a great starting point is www.americanbar.org/groups/committees/disaster/disaster_relief.html .

 

[1] Kelli Grant, How to navigate insurance claims, post Hurricane Harvey, CNBC (August 28, 2017 1:53PM), https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/28/how-to-navigate-insurance-claims-post-hurricane-harvey.html

[2] Id.

[3] Vann R. Newkirk II, The Legal Crises to Follow in Hurricane Harvey’s Wake, The Atlantic, (August 30, 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/seeking-legal-help-in-the-middle-of-hurricane-harvey/538488/.

[4] Grant, supra note 1.

[5] FEMA Letter: Houston FEB Update #3 (September 7, 2017), https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/uploads/feb_update_3_7-sep-2017.pdf

[6] Stacy Cowley, Harvey Victims Face Hurdles, and Maybe Bills, in Getting Aid, The New York Times (August 30, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/business/harvey-aid-sba-disaster-loans.html

[7] Davida Finger, FEMA Recoupment of Grants from Hurricane Survivors, (July 2012),  http://povertylaw.org/clearinghouse/stories/finger

[8] Greg Allen, After Hurricane Harvey, Many in Houston Struggle With Apartment Rent Dilemma, NPR, (September 2, 2017), http://www.npr.org/2017/09/02/548175755/after-hurricane-harvey-many-in-houston-struggle-with-apartment-rent-dilemma

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Disaster Information for Renters, FloridaLawHelp.org, https://floridalawhelp.org/files/3B1F73BC-C552-0FCC-AA24-7BF0B1FEB224/attachments/5303A5E8-53B2-448A-B290-C298A1FCB73C/am-11-disaster-information-for-renters.pdf

[13] Id.

[14] Id.