This summer the Texas – Mexico border has seen unprecedented flooding and rainfall due to a series of storms that hit the area. With low-income communities faced with flooded streets and damaged homes, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA)’s disaster assistance team was called into action to help our most vulnerable.
In early June a serious set of summer storms slammed Central Texas. An overflowing Guadalupe River flooded neighborhoods and damaged homes throughout New Braunfels.With forecasters predicting a record hurricane season approaching, it seemed likely from very early on that this season would mirror those in 2005 and 2008 where strong hurricanes forced thousands out of their homes and put them in need of assistance.
When the year’s first hurricane was aimed for Texas in late June, worries that the storm would hit the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico were quickly replaced with the realization that Hurricane Alex would hit the Texas – Mexico border, an area were low-income communities are highly susceptible to floods and intense rains.
While TRLA staff prepared their homes and offices for the storm, our disaster assistance team was also watching the situation carefully. When the storm had passed, although the border areas were lucky to escape major damage, it became clear that flooding was going to be a major concern.
So TRLA began efforts to help in the recovery. Attorneys with our disaster assistance team assessed damage throughout the border areas and identified communities that were particularly impacted by the flooding. TRLA’s disaster assistance hotline prepared for phone calls from people seeking legal assistance and a media campaign aimed to educate people about their legal rights.
“Disasters can trigger a variety of legal issues,” said TRLA attorney and head of the Disaster Assistance Team Tracy Figueroa. “TRLA can help disaster victims navigate those issues so that they receive the support they need to recover.”
According to Figueroa, after a hurricane, residents often encounter a variety of legal issues including denials of insurance claims, problems with a landlord or mortgage company, and price gouging. Residents may also need legal assistance to replace copies of important legal documents or as they try to obtain disaster-related unemployment, public benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security, or benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
For several weeks after the storm, the flooding persisted. Streets in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo were shut down due to the high waters. Within a week of the storm, more than one hundred border residents had contacted Texas RioGrande Legal Aid looking for assistance with a variety of issues related to the flooding – some as simple as finding food and shelter during this difficult time.
The legal questions were numerous. Some residents had questions regarding what benefits would be available if FEMA declared the border a disaster area. Other residents were having problems with landlords who refused to repair damages caused by the storm or needed help making sure they still received federal benefits while they were forced to relocate temporarily.
In August, FEMA officials declared eight Texas counties disaster areas. As a result of the declaration, residents of those counties are eligible to apply for federal assistance to help repair damages associated with the storms. With this declaration, TRLA’s disaster team prepared for a new task – to help residents apply for their benefits and appeal any denials.
With hurricane season far from over and forecasters predicting bigger storms on the horizon, TRLA’s disaster assistance team is prepared to continue its support for low-income Texans who may find themselves in serious need.
“People do not need to go through this process alone,” added Figueroa. “TRLA is here to give border residents the legal support they need.”