Rising To the Occasion: Remembering the 2015 Flood and the Response of SCLS

Posted on October 30, 2017



Tom Trent and Jack Cohoon

In a year that seems particularly afflicted by natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, it’s a good time to recall the importance of South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) in responding to one of the worst disasters in our state’s history. In October 2015, South Carolina faced a 1,000-year flood inundating much of the state. As the waters receded, SCLS rose to the occasion. When the offices reopened, staff found that the intake office was swamped in several inches of water. Fortunately, SCLS had taken steps to safeguard its intake-related technology and to ensure reasonable continuity of intake services in the event of disasters or similar emergencies. The SCLS disaster plan was activated and the intake operation was quickly relocated to the third floor in the Columbia office building. Telephone intake services resumed almost immediately when the phones were brought upstairs and the system reestablished. SCLS installed a secondary network switch so that telephones and intake computers could simply be relocated in response to emergency preparedness.

The next step in SCLS’s disaster response was to partner with the Young Lawyer’s Division of the South Carolina Bar to set up a referral process from an emergency help line and website. SCLS also requested and received special funding from Equal Justice Works for two paid law student positions, one housed in the Columbia office and one in the Charleston office. These law students helped with outreach, intake, research, legal document drafting, and trial preparation.

SCLS staff, including Executive Director Andrea Loney, spread out across the state to ensure that information was available at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sites to let affected people know about the services available through SCLS. Outreach efforts resulted in at least 179 flood-related applications for legal help. These are some examples of the flood-related cases that SCLS handled:

  • A client living in a mobile home that was severely damaged by the flood was denied FEMA assistance because she could not show ownership. SCLS worked with the client to gather documents and file an appeal, resulting in an award of $9,000 to pay for home repairs.
  • A client whose small business was destroyed in the flood was wrongfully denied Disaster Unemployment Assistance, a program that is similar to unemployment benefits. SCLS’s successful appeal resulted in the client receiving $6,520 of benefits to help her rebuild her business.
  • FEMA denied aid to a client whose two cars had been destroyed. Without a car the client had no way to get to medical appointments for a severe health problem. SCLS represented the client to appeal and obtained $6,000—the most FEMA pays for a vehicle—to help her buy a replacement car.
  • An elderly client with serious medical problems was forced to live in an apartment that had flooded and was covered in mold because the landlord failed to make the necessary repairs. SCLS negotiated for the landlord to provide a new rental unit. Now the client has a clean, safe place to live. You can go here to watch the client tell her story.

In addition to direct representation, SCLS continued its partnership with the SC HELP mortgage assistance program, which created a special benefit to help flood survivors in need of mortgage assistance to be able to afford necessary home repairs. Many homeowners were able to save their homes and get help rebuilding through this partnership.

SCLS provided vital services to the survivors of this natural disaster and was instrumental in our state’s rebuilding process. Similarly, SCLS has continued to work with and help victims of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017.  Look for more information about the responses to these disasters in the future issues of The Legal Chatter.

Tom Trent
Managing Attorney, LATIS

Jack Cohoon
Staff Attorney
Employment Law Unit Head