When Disaster Strikes: AARP Foundation Grants at Work
How a determined legal aid lawyer helped Louisianans recover from Hurricane Ida.
Maureen Morrow, Managing Attorney for the Disaster Title Clearing Project at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), knows a thing or two about the damage hurricanes can do to homes and families.
When she was a little girl in 1965, Hurricane Betsy destroyed her family’s brand-new home. Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina completely devastated her home, tore the roof off her niece’s house, and left her younger sister’s home submerged under nine feet of water. Maureen, a life-long Louisiana resident, has lost cars and countless possessions to other deadly storms.
“I know how people feel when a hurricane comes and affects everything,” she says. “It’s devastating.”
That’s why, when an opening arose in the SLLS division that helps people clear their property’s title so they can receive government benefits and insurance funds following a natural disaster, she jumped at it.
Homeowners have to show clear title to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) benefits or insurance funds that can help them rebuild their home — and their life. Maureen finds immense satisfaction in helping her clients prove ownership of their property as quickly as possible so they can secure the funds they need. It’s a service she and SLLS have been able to provide to even more clients thanks to an AARP Foundation grant of $470,000.
When Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana in August 2021, many people in the state — especially older adults living with low income — couldn’t obtain FEMA benefits or insurance funds because they discovered that, for one reason or another, they didn’t have clear title to their property. Most couldn’t afford the cost to settle the estate and clear their property title on their own.
According to Maureen, clearing title can be a very expensive legal process. She explains that hiring a lawyer to do it costs about $3,000, while the court filing fees alone run between $400 and $500. “If you don’t have $500, it might as well be a million dollars. Because if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.”
But the AARP Foundation grant enabled Maureen and SLLS to immediately begin settling estates and clearing property titles for clients whose homes had been damaged. The grant allows her to help clients who have an income of up to 250% of the federal poverty line.
One client, C.V., was a disabled 56-year-old man who had lived in the family home all his life. His mother had died several years before Hurricane Ida hit, but her estate had never been settled, so he lacked proof that he owned the family home. As a result, FEMA refused to provide him with any funds to help repair the damage caused by the hurricane. But once he contacted Maureen at SLLS, she was able to resolve his ownership issues within two days — and C.V. quickly received almost $29,000 from FEMA.
J.M., another client of Maureen’s, is a widow from St. John the Baptist Parish, whose home and its contents were severely damaged by Hurricane Ida. She was unable to continue living there and didn’t have adequate funds to care for herself and her minor child. Because her husband had died without a will, J.M. needed to settle the estate before she could claim any insurance benefits. With Maureen’s legal help, J.M. was appointed administrator of the estate, enabling her to cash $121,000 worth of insurance checks to repair her home, replace its contents, and care for her young daughter.
SLLS’ Disaster Title Clearing Project has helped 60 clients in total (and counting) with funds from the AARP Foundation grant, but one sticks out in her mind: a woman who burst into tears upon learning that, because of Maureen’s help, she would be able to cash the insurance check for the damage done to her home.
“I am so happy that this woman who has some disabilities and uses a walker is going to get her house fixed.”
Learn more about how grants from AARP Foundation help older adults recover from disasters.
Read more stories about how our programs have helped people find hope, and about the volunteers who give so much of themselves to help others.