Although many of their offices were closed (and some were without power or flooded), New York City public interest lawyers still managed to help clients in crisis during and after Hurricane Sandy. Like federal, state, and city officials, many lawyers turned to Twitter before, during, and after the storm. As Kat Aaron writes in a Storify post on her excellent Not So Civil Justice blog, “[i]n the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, low-income New Yorkers have pressing questions about food stamps, evictions, and unemployment benefits. Legal services offices throughout the area turned to social media to get out vital information.” Because advocates can tweet by text message from their individual cell phones, Twitter was available to them long after their power and landlines went out.
As New York City’s subway system shut down before the storm, lawyers used Twitter to inform their clients about court closures. While the storm raged and after it passed, organizations continued to tweet important news relating to their clients’ cases, particularly Governor Cuomo’s executive order suspending and modifying timelines for filing original cases and appeals and the New York City Civil Court’s orders halting evictions during the week of the storm, which appeared on the New York State Unified Court System’s website. In addition, advocates tweeted other important announcements relating to clients’ ability to file for unemployment benefits, obtain replacement SNAP benefits, get emergency social security payments, and find temporary shelter.
Organizations also relied on Twitter to help them surmount internal operational challenges posed by the storm. Many organizations’ phone and email systems were down—but individuals could still tweet, so executive directors and other staff members were able to use Twitter to communicate with their colleagues. For example, on October 31, the New York Legal Assistance Group tweeted:
“NYLAG's main office remains flooded and are closed Thurs. We are setting up remote locations. Staff should call 917 209 4728 for more info.”
NYLAG’s main offices in downtown Manhattan will be closed for several weeks, but the organization has been setting up temporary offices at disaster relief centers and using its mobile help center to assist Hurricane Sandy victims. Unsurprisingly, NYLAG is using its Twitter feed to inform potential clients about how, where, and when they can meet with attorneys.
Indeed, as legal aid, legal services, and other public interest organizations reopened across New York City, they used Twitter to let their clients know when and where they could meet with advocates. On November 1, Legal Services NYC tweeted:
“Most offices open tomorrow on limited basis/hours for existing cases and emergency walk-ins. Still no phones in or out. http://bit.ly/Rtb6dE”
Organizations also informed their followers how they could volunteer to help those hurt by the storm. On October 30, the New York Civil Liberties Union tweeted:
“Another useful list of organizations looking for help/volunteers to help rebuild after #SANDY – http://bit.ly/RmGDKz”
As lawyers were able to get back into their offices and back to their computers, their tweets provided more detailed assistance. For example, on November 6, MFY Legal Services tweeted:
As the region rebuilds, public interest lawyers are continuing to use Twitter to inform people about hotlines, legal clinics, and other resources. Of course, now that many New York-based organizations either had their power restored or relocated to temporary quarters, attorneys across the state are using their websites to reach out to people displaced or otherwise harmed by the storm. LawHelp.org/NY and the Empire Justice Center have both created impressive lists of Sandy-related resources on their websites.
Advocates everywhere should learn more about Twitter and other innovative technologies that can be used to help clients during a natural disaster. Hurricane Sandy was a monumental disaster, but the response by the public interest legal community has been equally monumental—and Twitter facilitated that response. Advocates’ creative use of Twitter during and after the storm is just one example of social media’s explosion throughout the legal community. How will public interest lawyers’ use of Twitter during Hurricane Sandy change their daily work? Does advocates’ embrace of Twitter and social media have any negative ramifications for their clients?