Hurricane victims in Alabama : New toll-free number available for long-term legal help

MONTGOMERY , Ala. - Hurricane victims in Alabama will now have along-term single toll-free number for help with disaster-related legal problems. The number, announced by Legal Services Alabama , is 1-877-393-2333.

The number will connect to a statewide call center network operated by Legal Services Alabama , with additional connections to legal services in otherstates affected by recent Gulf Coast hurricanes.

The legal call center initially will operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.Monday through Friday , beginning Sept. 29.

Hours are expected to expand as evacuees return to their homes and deal with long-term property issues.

Right now the toll-free hotline number will ring at a call center hub in Montgomery atthe main office of Legal Services Alabama .

Additional call centers will be added in Huntsville , Birmingham and Mobile during the next few weeks.

All calls will be answered by trained legal professionals,who will gather information from the callers, provide them legal information andadvice when appropriate. If callers need legal representation, call center staffwill transfer them to the closest resources throughout the entire Gulf Coast region affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Many callers may be eligible for free or reduced fee legalservices from Legal Services Alabama , Mississippi or Louisiana 's legal services programs orvolunteer attorneys in the three states.

"Our goal is to give each caller clear, correct and meaningfulinformation," said Jimmy Fry, emergency response director for Legal ServicesAlabama. "We want to refer people to the right resources with as few calls forthem as possible."

Fry says examples of hurricane-related legal problems mightinclude:

▫ Public benefits (foodstamps, Medicaid, unemployment compensation)
▫ Pictureidentification
▫ Housing disputes withFEMA, insurance companies, or contractors
▫ Disputes overguardianship or child custody
▫ Reconstruction ofimportant legal documents like mortgages, wills, medical powers of attorney,bank statements ▫ Consumer fraud andfinancing scams

Legal Services Alabama is distributing flyers with the new toll-freenumber at disaster response centers statewide, and is asking that all hurricane relief organizations add the number to their victim resource lists.

By referring callers to lawyers throughout Alabama and to similar legalservices program and private bar volunteer networks set up in Louisiana and Mississippi, hurricane victims can be served wherever they are living, according to Melissa Pershing, executive director of Legal Services Alabama.

"Lack of money or lack of residency in Alabama shouldn't stop anyone from seekinglegal help," Pershing said. "Legal help is out there. For many of our callerswho have lost everything and were already of low-income or modest means beforeKatrina hit, these services will be free or at a reduced fee."

The new toll-free number complements a helpline operated by the AlabamaState Bar Young Lawyers Committee in cooperation with FEMA.

The staff who answer the Young Lawyers line gather information from callers and then send that information via email to volunteer legal professionals for information andadvice.

In contrast, the new call center network operated by Legal ServicesAlabama will be able to handle more calls and provide more immediate assistance,advice, referrals and representation.

The Legal Services call center networkwill also be able to handle cases, including FEMA complaints, which the StateBar hotline is not authorized to handle.

The Legal Services call center will remain in operation as long asnecessary, probably several years, to resolve the legal issues arising from thelong-term rebuilding and recovery after a disaster of Katrina'smagnitude.

Information provided by Legal Services Alabama