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Free Legal Assistance Available for Puerto Rico Disaster Survivors

Authored By: American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and Puerto Rico Legal Services

A toll-free legal help hotline is now available to survivors impacted by Puerto Rico’s recent earthquakes in the following municipalities: Adjuntas, Cabo Rojo, Corozal, Guánica, Guayanilla, Jayuya, Lajas, Lares, Maricao, Peñuelas, Ponce, San Germán, San Sebastián, Utuado, Villalba, and Yauco. Earthquake survivors facing legal issues who are unable to pay for a lawyer may call:

800-981-5342
Monday through Friday
8:00 AM-4:00 PM, Puerto Rico local time

Free Legal Help Available

When calling the hotline, people should state they are seeking legal assistance related to the earthquakes, brief details of the assistance needed and the municipality they are located in. Callers have to be financially qualified to receive legal aid. Individuals who qualify for assistance will be matched with attorneys who have volunteered to provide free legal help with issues such as:

  • Assistance with securing FEMA and other government benefits available to disaster survivors;
  • Replacement of identification documents and other important destroyed legal documents;
  • Assistance with life, medical, and property insurance claims;
  • Help with home repair contracts and contractors;
  • Assisting in consumer protection matters, remedies, and procedures;
  • Counseling on mortgage-foreclosure problems; and
  • Counseling on landlord-tenant problems.

This hotline is a partnership between Puerto Rico Legal Services, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Major Disaster Declaration

In January 2020, a Major Disaster Declaration was issued for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, making federal funding help available to individuals and business owners in Adjuntas, Cabo Rojo, Corozal, Guánica, Guayanilla, Jayuya, Lajas, Lares, Maricao, Peñuelas, Ponce, San Germán, San Sebastián, Utuado, Villalba, and Yauco.People who have sustained property damage as a result of the earthquakes are encouraged to register with FEMA, as they may be eligible for federal and state disaster assistance.

  • Register online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov, via smartphone, or Web-enabled device at m.fema.gov; or
  • Call 800-621-3362 or 800-462-7585 (TTY) seven days a week from 7:00 am - 10:00 pm local time. Multilingual operators are available. Press 2 for Spanish and press 3 for other languages; or
  • Text “DRC” and a zip code to 43362 (4FEMA) to locate a Disaster Recovery Center in your area (standard message and data rates apply).

Applicants should be prepared to provide basic information about themselves, insurance coverage (if applicable), and any other information to help substantiate the loss. The deadline to register with FEMA is Monday, March 16, 2020.

Background Information

When the President declares a major disaster, FEMA, in cooperation with the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, coordinates a toll-free number for disaster survivors to request legal assistance. Funding for the toll-free line comes from FEMA under the authority of Section 415 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Public Law 100-707). The American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division in turn collaborates with state bar associations and other legal organizations to recruit volunteers in affected areas to handle survivors’ cases.

Survivors should be aware that there are limitations on disaster legal services. For example, assistance is not available for cases that will produce a fee (i.e., those cases where attorneys are paid part of the settlement by a court). Such cases are referred to a local lawyer referral service.

Beware of Fraud

Both FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico are warning residents of the risk of fraud and common scams in the wake of the severe weather. Common post-disaster fraud practices include phony housing inspectors, fraudulent building contractors, bogus pleas for disaster donations, and fake offers of state or federal aid. Puerto Ricans are urged to ask questions and to require identification when someone claims to represent a government agency.

Survivors should also keep in mind that state and federal workers never ask for or accept money, and always carry identification badges with a photograph. There is no fee required to apply for or to receive disaster assistance from FEMA, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), or the state. Additionally, no state or federal government disaster assistance agency will call to ask for your financial account information. Unless you place a call to the agency yourself, you should not provide personal information over the phone as it can lead to identity theft.

Those who suspect fraud can call the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 (toll free).

Hotline Partners

The following organizations have joined forces to establish a toll-free hotline for Puerto Rico disaster survivors to request free legal assistance and to provide volunteer attorneys to handle cases arising from the recent earthquakes.

Puerto Rico Legal Services - A non-profit that provides civil legal assistance for low-income, elderly, and disaster-affected residents of Puerto Rico through a toll- free hotline, court-based help desks, and community legal clinics. https://www.servicioslegales.org/

American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division - The ABA YLD, the largest national organization of young lawyers, provides leadership in serving the public and the profession, and promotes excellence and fulfillment in the practice of law. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/

Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA coordinates the federal government’s role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made, including acts of terror. Through an agreement with the American Bar Association, FEMA underwrites the cost of operating toll free legal assistance lines for survivors in areas designated as federal disaster sites. www.fema.gov

DisasterLegalAid.org - A national website that hosts self-help tools and legal information for people and communities impacted by natural disasters. DisasterLegalAid.org also serves as a central hub for collaboration, communication, and networking among legal advocates serving disaster-affected individuals. It is a collaborative effort of Lone Star Legal Aid, Pro Bono Net, the American Bar Association, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, and the Legal Services Corporation. www.disasterlegalaid.org