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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Battered Rockaways Need Good Lawyers

FAR ROCKAWAY, N.Y. (CN) - Along with generators, warm clothing, candles and batteries and food and water, Hurricane Sandy survivors need pro bono legal help, according to lawyers volunteering in the Rockaways.

A line for a makeshift legal clinic set up at a table outside St. Gertrude Parish in Far Rockaway stretched to the end of the block on Beach 38th Street.

Several lawyers volunteered through 596 Acres, a nonprofit that helps communities organize, coordinating with the National Lawyer's Guild and Occupy Sandy, a project of Occupy Wall Street.

St. Gertrude's church has been a main hub providing food, clothing and medical care in the early days of Occupy Sandy's efforts. Its legal outpost opened on Veteran's Day.

Volunteers passed out a 10-page newsletter with information about applying for federal aid, getting cleanup jobs through New York State, finding emergency shelter and offering tips for staying warm and finding emergency shelter.

Caroline, a recent New York University Law School graduate, said the legal clinic's most pressing goal is helping people meet deadlines to apply for emergency assistance.

Federal Emergency Management Agency applications are due within 60 days, and disaster unemployment must be filed within 30 days.

Frank Jenkins, who "just got out of the military," spent Veteran's Day helping Rockaways residents fill out FEMA's online forms on his Android tablet computer.

He spent the previous day donating his legal services to Staten Island's New Dorp neighborhood, on the island's south shore.

"In Staten Island, the primary issues concern homeowner issues, primarily dealing with insurance and issues such as whether to walk away from a home, who is responsible for doing demolition on a home and issues of that nature," Jenkins said.

He said that differing demographics of neighborhoods require different legal responses.

"I think this is a low-income area, whereas the New Dorp area in Staten Island is fairly affluent," he said.

Multiple lawyers working pro-bono on Veteran's Day compared their work to "triage."

"I talked to you for 3 minutes, and the back of the line is now 10 yards farther back," Jenkins told a reporter.

Anthony Mohen, a 28-year-old lawyer, said Rockaway residents called the government response inadequate.

"There's a lot of frustration around FEMA's response," Mohen said. "Once you submit an application, there's the process of waiting for them to send an inspector and make a determination about whether they're going to provide any sort of benefits."

Brian Dworkin, a director at Queens Legal Services, also was disappointed with delays in government help.

He oversees a city-sponsored legal clinic at Church of the Nazarene, where FEMA, the Red Cross, and other institutions have been offering food, clothing, blankets and other aid since Nov. 9.

"There was nothing organized here until three days ago," Dworkin said. "I'm sure there is directly a link between that and the fact that this is a community of poor people. Why should these folks suffer any more than anybody else in this city? We understand that part of this is a result of physical distance, but that's no excuse."

The weekend the legal clinic opened, it served roughly 150 people to address the community's "tremendous need," he said.

He said that getting food stamps and medication could also require legal help.

Outside the clinic, Leroy, a 64-year-old resident on disability, said his 100-year-old mother died during the storm, and he could not make it to North Carolina to attend her funeral.

He got as far as Long Island City, and stayed with his sisters.

Back in the Rockaways, his apartment lost its lights, heat and hot water.

"Cold weather did a mess with my arthritis," he said.

Dworkin said that he expected the clinic to follow up with residents for "several more weeks, if not longer."

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