The Common Law

Hurricane Harvey – common legal questions

Texas is living through the effects of an unprecedented natural disaster — Hurricane Harvey. As the flood waters recede, folks from Corpus Christi to Houston to Beaumont are left with the daunting task of finding answers in the aftermath. Whether you seek information for yourself or others, the information below addresses commonly asked questions.


Do I qualify for FEMA assistance?

To see if you qualify for FEMA assistance, call 1-800-621-3362. Before you call make sure you have your Social Security number, current and pre-disaster address, telephone numbers where you can be contacted, insurance information (if any), and total household income. You can also check to see if you are eligible for disaster relief on this website: www.disasterassistance.gov.


Do some property owners have a legal claim against the government for releasing water into their neighborhoods?

The Addicks and Barker reservoirs on Houston's west side were designed to store and gently release accumulated water into Buffalo Bayou to help prevent catastrophic flooding to downstream neighborhoods, Houston's downtown, and the Houston Ship Channel. But during Hurricane Harvey, as both reservoirs reached their capacities, the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally decided to open the flood gates, intentionally flooding homes and businesses downstream from the dams in the Buffalo Bayou watershed in order to prevent destruction in other areas.

The release was done in an attempt to keep the waters from overtopping the earthen-levee system, which would risk a complete failure of the dam. The tragic, unenviable choice was to flood some to protect other people and other property. The results of that choice were predictable: flooded homes, cars, and private property damage.

The question remains: Do the property owners directly affected deserve to be compensated for bearing the burden of the larger community? According to the U.S. Supreme Court in a flooding case, the Constitution's Fifth Amendment is "designed to bar Government from forcing some people alone to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole" (Arkansas Fish & Game Commission v. U.S., 568 U.S. 23, 31 [2012]). If you or a family member were impacted by the flooding caused by the release of water from the dam, you should consult with an experienced eminent domain lawyer to investigate the potential taking claim.


My business was negatively impacted by the hurricane. Are there any resources for my business?

The Texas Association of Business has established a hotline to provide resources to business owners impacted by Harvey. Call 512/637-7714.


I lost all of my personal identification documents in the flood. What do I do?

Visit www.usa.gov/hurricane-harvey#item-213436. This will provide instructions on how to replace your lost or destroyed vital documents (Social Security card, passport, driver's license, birth certificate, etc.).


I want to report a company that was price gouging right after the storm hit. How do I report price gouging?

Unfortunately, some people driven to extremes choose to capitalize on others' misfortune during crises like Hurricane Harvey. This may manifest itself through price gouging. The Texas Attorney General's Office cautions there has been an uptick in price gouging reports and encourages those near the affected areas to remain vigilant and cautious. Price gouging can include demanding an exorbitant or excessive price in connection with the sale or lease of fuel, food, medicine, or other necessity. Price gouging is illegal. For Texans who suspect that they are being scammed or who encounter price gouging, call the Office of the Attorney General at 800/621-0508, or email consumeremergency@oag.texas.gov, or file a complaint online at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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