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Boalt Hall professor helps create legal manual for Katrina survivors

| 03 November 2005

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, members of the Mississippi bar assumed the daunting task of providing emergency legal assistance in disaster-relief centers across the Gulf Coast. Need was immense, and the lawyers were soon sending out S.O.S. appeals themselves. Could someone help create a resource for volunteers to refer to when fielding survivors' myriad (and often unusual) legal questions?

A new online legal manual helps address such questions, thanks in part to the efforts of Law Professor Charles Weisselberg, director of the Center for Clinical Education at Boalt.

"We were hearing louder and louder calls for assistance on a huge set of legal problems," he says. To name a few: Is one required to make mortgage payments on a house that has been destroyed? How do you get your Social Security check when you've been displaced? Should FEMA benefits be counted as part of income for the purposes of child support? Are landlords required to preserve their renters' belongings? How does one obtain bank records that have been destroyed?

The Berkeley faculty member, who chairs the clinical legal-education section of the Association of American Law Schools, put out a national call for volunteer legal experts to develop sections of a manual. "The response rate was great," he reports. "People were really happy to help."

The online resource (found at katrinalegalrelief.org) includes sections on a wide range of legal issues - involving landlord/tenant law; mortgages, property, banking, and insurance; benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), family law, consumer issues, and more. It incorporates information on FEMA benefits developed by Morrison & Foerster and post-disaster legal information created by the Florida legal community. Weisselberg wrote some of the sections and portions of the introduction.

He calls the manual - which deals with federal and Mississippi state laws - a "work in progress." The next challenge, he says, is to make it a valuable resource for lawyers in different states. "If you're in Southern California trying to help three refugees from Mississippi and two from Louisiana, right now you have to do separate research on the law in different states."