The nonprofit law firm Alaska Legal Services Corp. was awarded federal money this week to support victims of disasters last year as they continue to navigate the recovery.
The firm will be in charge of distributing $4.7 million in funding to create what’s being described as a “disaster relief hub,” which will support the victims of 12 natural disasters in American Indian and Alaska Native communities in Alaska and other Western states.
Victims of extreme weather events often require legal aid as they file for insurance benefits, navigate landlord relationships and seek to replace personal documents.
In Alaska the money will go to support areas affected by five major natural disasters, including Typhoon Merbok, said Sarah Carver, a senior staff attorney for Alaska Legal Services. She said that disaster highlighted how challenging it can be for rural residents to submit disaster relief paperwork to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
“Aside from the intuitive issues that come with a disaster, you also see an uptick in housing-related problems, security issues,” she said. “And these are all compounded by being vulnerable, remote communities where a lot of these disasters occurred.”
Alaska Legal Services will train local, non-attorney community justice workers to do outreach in their remote communities affected by natural disasters. The firm will work with Montana Legal Services, Oklahoma Indian Legal Services, Anishinabe Legal Services and DNA People’s Legal Services to do the same in their regions.
Carver said that disasters can expand what she called a “justice gap” — the space where people who could benefit from access to knowledgeable legal aid cannot get it. The program aims to reduce that gap by training locals to look for ways attorneys or volunteers can help guide disaster victims through the recovery process.
“They’re going to be doing extensive travel and outreach to even the most remote parts of the affected areas,” she said. “So they’ll be doing a lot of on the ground work, to disseminate information, advise people about their legal rights, and then take the potential client case as far as it needs to go.”
The money comes from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 and most of it will stay in Alaska, Carver said, largely because Alaska Legal Services will manage the grant. It will fund community justice workers in communities affected by Typhoon Merbok and storms in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
In a news release, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called the grant “good news” and said too many Alaska families are “facing challenges regarding their finances, insurance claims, housing, and more.”
“This funding will provide them with legal support while they continue recovering from the damaging impacts of Typhoon Merbok,” she said.
Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, said the money will allow Alaskans to continue to support each other in places where “resources are limited and communication with federal agencies can be slow.”
“Many Alaskans are still struggling to navigate the FEMA application and appeals processes, and this legal assistance funding will make a real difference in their lives,” she said in a news release.
Alaska Legal Services will begin to hire and train the community justice workers this fall. The work is designed around funding for a three-year grant, but Carver said the plan is to continue to find funding for the project so that it can continue.
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