Emergency Legal Responders is a legal advocacy organization that focuses on helping people prepare for and recover from disasters. The organization was launched in New Orleans but has a national reach. Caitlin Morgenstern and Amelia Hoppe, lawyers and best friends (pictured above, left to right), founded the organization in 2017. At the time, they decided to start a national disaster needs assessment, with Hoppe driving cross-country from New Orleans to Bellingham, Washington, then to New York and back down. She met with local legal and social organizations, tribal communities, schools, and other groups to find out what information and resources they had, and what they still needed. Through polls and surveys evaluating disaster preparedness, as well as asking, “What would your dream organization look like?” they synthesized a national perspective and found areas of need they could work to fill. That surveying became the basis for creating their organization and developing the ways they deliver services: a system that focuses on legal accessibility, training sessions for individuals and organizations, and free community clinics. Hoppe and Morgenstern now serve as the executive director and board president, respectively. They talked to us about what it’s like running the organization, disaster relief scams they saw after Hurricane Ida, and responding to the wildfires in Hawaii this summer.
Y’all are based here?
Amelia Hoppe: We are in New Orleans, Louisiana, and because of that we have a certain set of skills that has been incredibly valuable. There is this conventional narrative of our state being the one in need. But in a disaster rights context, we have firsthand knowledge and training that is invaluable for other states and territories that are grappling with disaster rights issues for the first time. You’ll think, “Oh, Louisiana is in deficit, it needs X, Y, Z from other states,” but this is an instance where we get to step up and say, “We’ve had experience, we know how this works, we know what recovery looks like.” Because of that, our nonprofit has become known, and we’ve been asked to assist all over the U.S. with manmade and natural disaster efforts. In the past couple of months, we were asked by mutual aid groups in Hawaii to help them navigate eminent domain issues and rumor control. We were also asked by Vermont Law School to do training for their attorneys after the floods, because a lot of these places have never dealt with natural disasters before and don’t know the framework.
When you think of the fundamental requirements of disaster recovery—emergency evacuation, medical attention, food and shelter, and legal advocacy—legal advocacy is frequently overlooked, even though it has profound, enduring generational impact. For example, we still have cases from Hurricane Katrina. One thing that we talk about with predatory disaster practices is that people always say the disaster is a great equalizer, but that’s just not true. Historically, oppressed and marginalized communities—people of color, women, LGBTQ people, low income individuals, incarcerated persons, people with disabilities, senior citizens, etc.—are always at a disadvantage. That’s something that we see, and that we try to work towards negating. We created our system of how we deliver services based on legal accessibility—translating “legalese” or the language of the law. We have legal accessibility programs, we have training programs on disaster rights for individuals and community organizations, and we do free community clinics where we help people one-on-one. We provide services to all disaster survivors, and we focus on achieving community resilience.
Can you talk more about “legalese”?
Caitlin Morgenstern: An example of legalese is how FEMA has completely arbitrary terms that they use for claims. The terms are confusing—like “boarders” versus “renters” versus “household”—and a lot of times peoples’ claims get denied because they don’t understand the terms. Take “household.” For the FEMA grant program, the individual and household assistance program is designed to make a claim based on a household. One person can be a household, but when you think about a household that’s not usually what you think about, you think of a family. You go to law school in part to understand these terms, and how they’re used differently from everyday speech. If we’re able to break down this information in a way that is easy to understand, people can take matters into their own hands and be successful.
AH: Legal language has developed its own vocabulary and structure and style, and because of that, it doesn’t really keep up-to-date with what our terminology is now. A lot of people were immediately rejected because they put the wrong status. Most of the time people get rejected the first time, they don’t know that they can appeal, and they lose the opportunity for reimbursement.
But you think it’s more an oversight than intention.
AH: FEMA is a very new program, so it hasn’t had a lot of time to develop. And it wasn’t developed keeping in mind as many disasters as we have now, with environmental change.
[The language on the forms] might not be used intentionally to obfuscate, but it’s not able to catch up. It’s not promoting plain language to make everything accessible and understandable to everyone, which is a problem, because the law is supposed to be there to help people.
CM: We’re seeing more and more disasters, so there’s more and more need for FEMA assistance, and each disaster is different. So what FEMA offers is constantly changing, and it will change from place to place. They are constantly having to hire new people, and train new people, and it just doesn’t always happen. It gets difficult for people—they’ll file a claim, it gets denied, and then when they reach out to get assistance, the person assisting them hasn’t necessarily been given the correct information, or doesn’t know the information.
How did you decide to start your organization?
AH: We started in 2017. We were completely volunteer-based then. I had worked in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, helping local attorneys there with disaster rights. Those were volunteer attorneys, so I came to understand that landscape, and I realized that what we currently have in our country is a very “patchwork” system where each state is supposed to individually respond to disasters. But disasters don’t register arbitrary boundaries like state borders, and neither should disaster rights law. Even though there are state-specific programs, most of it happens through big federal programs such as FEMA, so there is a lot of crossover, and we need a national system for these efforts.
What are some of the predatory disaster practices you’ve seen?
CM: We have both been working on disaster legal response work since Hurricane Katrina, so we have become familiar with a lot of these practices since then, and seen some of them develop. Because of what we’ve seen, we focus on education and outreach to warn people about some of these predatory practices. There’s contractor fraud, which is pretty huge here in Louisiana. One of the scams that came out after Ida was bigger than what we’ve seen before.
You know, lawyers are held to a higher standard. We have these professional rules of conduct that are meant to ensure integrity and professionalism in the practice. The Louisiana Supreme Court regulates the practice of attorneys in Louisiana. But what we saw after Hurricane Ida especially was predatory attorneys engaging in unethical behavior like overcharging clients, misrepresentation, or encouraging unnecessary legal actions.
The biggest one—there’s a law firm that’s based out of Houston, that [had] some Louisiana bar attorneys there. It was called McClenny, Moseley & Associates, it’s been referred to as MMA in a lot of the press. This firm filed more than 2,000 hurricane damage lawsuits in Louisiana, and filed more than a few hundred in the Western District of Louisiana over the course of only a couple days. Then they produced a promotional video boasting about that. Then they filed 600 lawsuits in the Eastern District of Louisiana. It caught the court’s attention, and they started investigating and it turned out that the firm was using several predatory practices.
First off, after Ida, it was really hard to find someone to fix your roof. If you have a FEMA claim, FEMA requires you to get a contract estimate for the work, and a lot of people were having trouble finding a contractor. This law firm entered into some sort of partnership with a contractor, and the contractor would go look for blue roofs and knock on people’s doors, then people would think that they were signing up to get their roof fixed, but they would also sign on the law firm to represent them in their insurance case. People weren’t realizing what they were signing on for. For attorneys, getting consent for representation, discussing fees, that’s highly regulated. This went around that.
They were also putting out all these ads, which I saw because I would get them on Instagram. It was from the “National Insurance Compensation Program,” and it was made to look like a government grant program, and then when you click on it, you have to click multiple times, and it is only when you scroll down and see on the bottom in small print that this is a paid advertisement. It’s a law firm that’s gonna be charging for services, not a free grant program. They also were sending text messages, and people got so many letters from them in the mail, just an overwhelming amount. They were coming at people from all these angles, and ended up filing all these lawsuits. Some of them were even against the wrong insurance companies, or they had multiple lawsuits for the same people. The [Louisiana] Supreme Court ended up stepping in, suspending the attorneys, and then having to deal with all these cases that are pending. It was a giant mess, and we haven’t seen anything on this scale before.
How did y’all first hear about it?
CM: I became aware of this originally because I’m a homeowner and I was just getting so many letters in the mail from them. And then the ads. And I’m like, “What is this? This is crazy.” I haven’t seen something like this. Before that, we’d done a lot of clinics after Ida in the Bayou parishes. Amelia would always send me these pictures of these billboards for attorneys, you know, the ones you always see on the highway.
AH: Yeah, we were doing free clinics in the Bayou parishes and there was one in particular I remember in Larose, Louisiana, in the local library. We’re offering free legal information, not legal advice, and we’re answering questions, and one question that kept coming up is, “How much do I owe you?” ‘Cause they were used to being told the first 15 minutes are free and then after that you have to pay. And then we started hearing more and it was kind of shady. As I was leaving, I walked outside and I’m driving and I called Caitlin, because within a three block radius from the library I saw four attorney signs advertising, “Get help with your Ida claim” and saying things like, “Apply today or you’re gonna lose out”—aggressive language, but also implying that the only way you can get money is through them. And I’m sure you’ve seen around town here, they still have them on all the buses. It’s really aggressive advertising. We see that often after disasters.
ELR at the Bayou Black Community Center in Houma, Louisiana on December 2, 2023. Left to right: Caroline Newman, Caitlin Morgenstern, Mona Sharana Little Dove Billiot. (Photo: Amelia Hoppe)
With the MMA scam or anything else like it, what has been your involvement or response?
CM: An example is how I was talking about the 2,000 lawsuits filed. Every single person needed to be contacted and made sure that they were aware of what was going on, and to find them alternate representation. The Supreme Court has set up a receivership for that and set up some firms who were going to help, but getting the word out to everybody, through our social media and our presence, was one thing we did. We get questions all the time from individuals. We help them understand what’s going on and then refer them to where they can get help. We also do training for attorneys on ethical disaster practices. So we’re not only training individuals on their rights but training attorneys on appropriate advertising and practices, to help to try to prevent attorneys from doing this in the future.
AH: Our response comes back to working on our programs, training people to know their rights. Everything from working with the United Houma Nation and training their social workers for issues they’ll see with their client base, to working with environmental groups on the intersection of climate change and legal rights, sharing our legal accessibility documents, creating materials, checklists, disaster resource guides. We have these all-weatherproof folders—fireproof, waterproof—and then inside is your disaster legal needs checklist, all the legal paperwork that you should have on you in case a disaster strikes. You’d put your lease in there, you’d put your custody paperwork in there, etc., so if something happens you can quickly grab it. A lot of this is: How do we help give people tools to be able to not be put in a position where they are easily preyed upon? We’re here to give people tools to self-advocate.
What are your experiences with rumors and rumor control?
AH: Rumors related to FEMA get started and spread really fast. One aspect of our legal accessibility goal is combating false information. We see it a lot. There’s so many, and they’re wild—there’s one happening in Kentucky saying that if you have raised money through a crowdfunding website, then you can’t apply for FEMA. Because of that, a lot of people didn’t apply, and missed the deadline. That’s a terrible rumor that was spreading on social media and impacting a bunch of people. One of our practices is to combat that. We keep in mind that a lot of the programs that are to help people with FEMA are using outdated models. For example, you have to call a line, and hopefully talk to an attorney—but often right after a disaster the phone lines are down. There’s more of a chance of there being internet available, so it’s important to put out updated, verified information on different platforms that people can then share.
There was another big one, that I kind of touched on earlier, about eminent domain. The idea that if you lived in Hawaii and applied for FEMA the state could come in and they would do an investigation on your land and take your land, saying that the land is no longer suitable.
What are some of the moments that have stood out to you over the years? Your frustrations or successes?
CM: I’ll talk about frustration. Like Amelia said before, one of the reasons that we started is because disaster response is so patchwork. As we’re seeing more disasters, there’s more places where people might not necessarily have had to respond to a disaster before. So it’s like people are trying to reinvent the wheel each time. That’s why we started our training program, because otherwise you’re having to train everybody each time, and there’s a delay in aid that affects people.
ELR Wills Clinic at St. Roch Tavern, May 31, 2022.
Photo: Dave Lanser
What was it like working in Hawaii this summer?
CM: In Hawaii our work was a lot of outreach. We did a lot of talking to the media, to spread the word and try to combat the rumor[s]. And a lot of organizing with mutual aid groups and groups there on the ground, to provide them with information that they could then provide to the people that they’re working directly with.
AH: I think that coincides with what our successes have been. Which is what makes this really cool, because the law is not inherently thought of as a cool thing, but we’re getting a reputation for community members trusting us. You hear the word “attorney,” and it’s kind of scary. But now, we get requests all the time, people know who we are in different parishes and counties. It’s really neat. We’ve been invited into communities who have been pretty closed off, because they’ve been treated poorly in the past by the law. We’ve been able to sit on porches… I’ve had iced tea with pretty much every librarian in all 64 parishes in Louisiana. It’s the idea that with law we don’t need to make it this rigmarole. It doesn’t need to be suits and tall buildings. You can do a clinic out of the trunk of your car. We did a clinic within a week after Ida hit, and we were the first nonprofit legal services clinic to do it here in New Orleans. The way that Caitlin and I see it is, yeah, we’re lawyers, but we’re approachable; we’re in cutoffs and T-shirts, and we have a fold-up table, and if we put a sign in permanent marker on a piece of paper that says “Free Legal Help,” people will come.
We’ve been asked to do training sessions at some unusual places. We did a wills clinic—preparing your will—at St. Roch Tavern. So it’s 5 p.m., and we’re like, “Surprise, we’re gonna talk about wills.” Everybody was given a piece of paper, and we had a projector, and people are having their drinks, and we’re getting to do wills on the spot. We want people to be given materials and tools in the simplest way. We’ve seen a lot of barriers, and we want things to be streamlined. Caitlin and I have seen that focusing on accessibility is a way to be a successful nonprofit. The fact that Hawaii did reach out, and trusted us with this, that’s so cool. The fact that these different groups are asking us to come in and help—that’s really moving. It also helps that Caitlin is my best friend. We started this thing together, and we’ve seen it have a great impact.
Are there other directions that you want to go in that we haven’t covered so far?
AH: I think the biggest thing is just that knowing your rights surrounding disasters is really important, especially in Louisiana. We’re not just hurricanes now, we have tornadoes in January—disaster season is year-round now. You hear, “Know your rights,” and disaster rights are pretty much every legal right, but on an emergency timeline. We’re trying to make the law less scary, and if we can find ways to help, we’re here.
Top and bottom photos: Katie Sikora