15:47 PM

Executive summary: A legacy of service: Helping our neighbors navigate disaster recovery

As I drove into the office this morning, I could see the brown and muddy ground along the highway where floodwaters once stood. During today’s lunch-time jog, evidence of the tornado that hit Jefferson City just weeks ago existed in the roar of chainsaws cutting through mangled trees and the bright blue tarps covering roof damage.

From the Bar Center’s front door, one can see Simonsen Ninth Grade Center, its windows shattered and now covered by plywood. The Missouri Bar Center received only minor roof damage; we were so fortunate. Sadly, many of our friends and neighbors were not, and flooding continues in many areas across Missouri.

Our state is geographically positioned to get its share of natural disasters, including severe storms such as ice storms and tornados, as well as flooding. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Missouri has had 70 disasters since 1953, including the devastating Joplin tornado in 2011 and the floods of 1993. During both of these significant disasters, Missouri lawyers stepped up to help their fellow citizens, just as they have during the recent flooding and storms.

Each time the rivers rise, it’s hard to avoid comparing the levels to that seen in the Great Flood of ‘93. For several months spanning the spring and summer of 1993, floodwaters affected nine states, covering 400,000 square miles and causing more than $15 billion in damage. Missouri Bar members assisted with the statewide sandbagging effort, where “[s]ore backs and good consciences were the only reward,” wrote then-President John Black in September 1993. The Missouri Bar Young Lawyers’ Section coordinated lawyer volunteers, who staffed Disaster Assistance Centers and helped people with insurance questions and legal documents that were lost in the flooding. Legal Services of Eastern Missouri prepared a training booklet for volunteer lawyers, and The Missouri Bar partnered with local bar associations across the state to help those impacted and working to rebuild.

As the floodwaters receded, consumer fraud became a concern. President Black wrote that “human vultures flock to the sites of disasters and prey on the downtrodden. Through an aggressive public education effort, lawyers helped alert flood victims to the risks posed by dishonest and exploitive people.” In this next phase of assistance, The Missouri Bar partnered with local bar associations to hold “Call-A-Lawyer” programs across the state, and President Black and then-Attorney General Jeremiah “Jay” Nixon appeared on a statewide call-in radio program to provide consumer rights advice. Helping Missouri’s citizens during this time was a huge team effort among legal services offices, the bar’s YLS, and local bar associations – an effort that would be repeated in the wake of the devastating 2011 tornado in Joplin.

The EF-5 tornado on the afternoon of May 22, 2011 – the seventh-deadliest tornado in our nation’s history – left more than 150 dead and 1,100 injured. With more than $2.8 billion in damage, many lost their homes, and six of our members lost their law offices. It’s hard to describe the devastation and power – we found photographs and documents on my parents’ farm, some 45 miles away as the crow flies. The Missouri Bar, aided by its YLS, provided free legal advice at multi-agency resource centers and through a legal hotline, as well as resources to help Missouri lawyers assist victims. As then-President John Johnston wrote at the time, despite their own losses, the Jasper County Bar “pushed aside its own sorrows, and is already giving free advice to other folks in distress.”

Each time disaster occurs, members of local bars, legal aid offices, and area attorneys come together to help those in need. As Johnston wrote, “Times like this define who we are. We are a great people. We demonstrate this every time something horrible happens to our neighbors. Together, we will help our neighbors get through this. On behalf of The Missouri Bar, our deepest gratitude to all our members who volunteer their expertise and make donations to those in need.”

On our 75th anniversary, we salute each of you who have stepped forward to assist a neighbor during a time of crisis and disaster. You are a significant part of why we are proud to be Missouri lawyers. Unfortunately, help is still needed as recent floodwaters recede, and we also need to be ready when the next disaster strikes. If you would like to volunteer for the free Disaster Recovery Legal Assistance hotline, you can sign up online at www.mobar.org or contact Brett Rowles, our legal and community services coordinator, at 573-638-2242 or browles@mobar.org. You can also sign up to do pro bono your way through a virtual, walk-in clinic where Missouri lawyers answer non-criminal legal questions from low-income Missourians at a time and place that best fits your schedule. Go to Missouri.FreeLegalAnswers.org and click “Volunteer Attorney Registration” to get started. Thank you for all you do to continue our profession’s legacy of service to Missouri citizens in need.