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OBA Attorneys Answer the Call of Storm Victims

Attorneys Answer the CallRichard Vreeland (left) and Charles Wetsel (right) provided free legal advice at a disaster relief center.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Legal issues resulting from the May storms kept the Oklahoma Bar Association’s free legal advice hotline ringing, and OBA volunteer attorneys answered the call. Over the course of June and July, demand for the hotline and service has tapered off, leading to the service being concluded on Aug. 1, 2013.

Victims in 19 counties were eligible to receive free legal advice and while intake for the program ended on Aug. 1, volunteer attorneys continue to work with victims who have previously requested advice.

Much has been and will be done

Since the OBA enacted its disaster relief program in late May (in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency) over 600 storm victims have been paired with more than 260 volunteer OBA attorneys to address a wide array of legal problems related to recovery.

Victims of the May tornadoes and subsequent flooding in Caddo, Canadian, Cleveland, Comanche, Creek, Garfield, Grant, Greer, Kiowa, LeFlore, Lincoln, Logan, McClain, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Oklahoma, Pawnee, Payne and Pottawatomie counties were eligible to receive legal advice from OBA volunteers.

In addition to the OBA hotline, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma Inc. and OBA volunteers were boots on the ground at relief centers in Moore, El Reno, Shawnee, Little Axe and Midwest City, allowing storm victims to receive immediate face-to-face legal advisement. Attorneys staffed the centers from May 23 to when the last center closed on July 3.

Answering the Call

OBA President Jim Stuart of Shawnee commended the work and diligence of the volunteers, saying, “I’m incredibly proud of the OBA attorneys who have volunteered their unique skillset and experience to help disaster victims in the wake of these storms.”

Attorneys on Your Side

With the tremendous amount of destruction that came with back-to-back record-breaking storms, many of the issues OBA volunteers assisted with involved property loss, mortgages and landlord/tenant issues.

For example, a Cleveland County man’s rented apartment was hit by the May 20 tornado. Just days after the storm, he received a termination of lease notice from his landlord informing him he would be required to remove all of his belongings from the apartment and less than a week to do so. With the help of an OBA volunteer attorney, he was informed of his rights as a tenant, resolved his issues and was able to find new housing.

Some storm victims had loose ends when the storm hit, leaving them with a complex legal mess and little or no documentation intact.

A farmer in Canadian County, having seen the destruction from the Moore tornado, decided to take out a new insurance policy on his barns and submitted the paperwork shortly before the El Reno tornado hit on May 31, the widest in recorded history, made its way across his property. The insurance company informed him that his barns would not be covered, even though he had purchased the policy before the tornado hit. An OBA attorney and the farmer are now working with the insurance company to find a solution.

One family was hit twice with tragedy. First, a man’s father died on May 18 and two days later, his recently deceased father’s home was destroyed in the Moore tornado. The family came to find out that insurance on the home had lapsed and taxes were owed on the home. Understandably, there were many legal questions that needed answers. An OBA attorney is helping that family through that process.

Some victims simply don’t want to be taken advantage of. For example, one woman called the OBA hotline seeking advice to ensure she was treated fairly by contractors and insurance adjustors. Small things like that can make a big difference in a family’s life for years to come.

History of Helping

Providing legal assistance to victims of disasters was nothing new to the OBA. In the last 18 years, the OBA has enacted its disaster response plan seven times, including various storms and tornadoes as well as the 1995 terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Other bar associations have even modeled their disaster assistance plans after the OBA’s.

Heroes Behind the Scenes

The OBA’s disaster assistance program doesn’t just happen, it involves many moving parts including contacting storm victims, recruiting volunteers and ensuring proper procedures are followed and so on. A great deal of coordination between FEMA, the OBA and Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, among others must occur. Many OBA attorneys compassionately answered the call, but a few deserve special recognition.

Tulsa lawyer Molly Aspan of Hall, Estill, Gable, Golden & Nelson, PC, served as liaison between FEMA and the OBA. In that difficult and complex role coordinating efforts with an enormous national organization, Ms. Aspan performed at a very high level, serving as an incredible ambassador for both her state and the OBA. Additionally, OBA Disaster Relief coordinator Jacob Jean was brought on shortly after the Moore tornado and worked diligently to pair victims with volunteer attorneys whose practice area was relevant to the victim’s needs.

OBA members can and should all take pride in their association’s response to the May tragedies.

Still in need of Disaster-Related Legal Advice?

The disaster relief free legal advice hotline closed on Aug. 1 due to a lack of demand. However, if you are a victim of the May storms, there are resources and services available on the OBA website to help you find an attorney. While such legal counsel might not necessarily be free, please keep in mind that many of the legal issues that arise from a disaster are complex and difficult to navigate. Contacting an attorney to assist you is highly advisable.