Disaster 101

Legal aid organizations play a vital role in the recovery phase of the emergency management cycle. This cycle serves as a framework for mitigating the impacts of a disaster and improving disaster preparedness, response, and recovery operations.

Page last updated: 03/24/2023


The emergency management cycle is a multiphase framework that helps communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from a disaster. It also establishes a process for continuous readiness and improvement. The cycle consists of the following four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Although every phase carries implications for legal aid organizations, these organizations are most involved in supporting disaster survivors during the recovery phase, which can last for weeks, months, or years.

“When we think of ‘first responders,’ we usually think of firefighters, police, and emergency medical workers. Right behind them, though, are the lawyers. Legal needs in emergencies are numerous and varied.”
— New York City Bar Association, Pro Bono and Legal Services Committee

The four phases, and the extent of legal aid organizations’ involvement in each one, are summarized below.


Mitigation activities reduce the severity of future disasters’ impact on a community. At a community level, these activities can include actions like building or reinforcing levees and floodwalls, adjusting zoning and building codes, improving evaluation plans, and investing in stormwater drainage system upgrades. They also can include raising public awareness about the ways that individual households can prepare, such as buying flood insurance, installing sump pumps, redirecting water away from their homes with grading and downspout extenders, and more.


Preparedness is a continuous cycle of planning, training, testing, evaluating, and correcting to ensure effective coordination during the response to a disaster. For legal aid organizations, preparedness can involve building relationships within the community, increasing public awareness, recruiting and training pro bono attorneys, developing and updating a continuity of operations plan, and more.


The immediate response to a disaster includes prioritizing, sequencing, and focusing efforts to maintain or restore critical services and infrastructure. Although legal aid organizations’ involvement in the immediate aftermath is limited, legal aid needs — such as assistance with replacing lost documents, filing for insurance claims, and applying for aid — could arise as soon as a week after the event.


It is important to understand that recovery for disaster survivors, and their need for legal assistance to support that recovery, can last for months or even years. Legal service providers strengthen short- and long-term recovery efforts by providing legal assistance.

Disaster survivors’ legal assistance needs include those related to:

  • Access to public education while displaced
  • Bankruptcies
  • Civil and disability rights cases
  • Document replacement
  • Domestic violence issues, including protective orders
  • Emergency custody modifications
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) applications
  • FEMA appeals
  • Foreclosure prevention
  • Guardianships
  • Insurance claim disputes
  • Lease terminations and evictions
  • Parenting order modifications
  • Powers of attorney
  • Price gouging
  • Rent subsidy renewals
  • Repair contractor scams
  • Section 8 portability
  • Security deposits
  • Unemployment applications and appeals
  • Utility shut-offs
  • Wage theft


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