How Craig Cannon got FEMA to let disaster victims sue FEMA
Published in 2009 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on January 20, 2009
Updated on April 18, 2009
Craig Cannon keeps his eye on the weather. Not because he has a fascination with meteorology or because he’s worried about getting rained on. As national director of the American Bar Association’s Disaster Legal Services program, he simply needs to know when and where Mother Nature is about to strike.
The BB&T Corporation in-house litigator has traveled to several major disasters—including Hurricanes Katrina in Louisiana and Rita in Texas, flooding in Wisconsin, and Hurricanes Alex, Charley and Frances in North Carolina—to administer free legal services to victims. “I’m lucky enough to have a law license, so I should be giving back,” Cannon says. “Hopefully in a small way, it’s working.”
He first got involved with disaster relief in 2002, as co-chair of the state bar Young Lawyer Division’s Disaster Response Committee. After moving up through a few related posts, he earned his current title in August 2006. During his tenure, 30-plus states have experienced disasters, from crop freezes to tornadoes to wildfires, and more than 75,000 people have received help through the program.
While in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, Cannon remembers meeting an 18-year-old girl whose mother died just before the storm, leaving her to care for her two younger siblings. “Her dad was not in the picture,” he says. “She had not gone through the process yet of actually gaining legal custody of her siblings, and she didn’t have any money, didn’t have access to the bank accounts. We tried to put her in contact with others that could help her with her issues, whether it was getting custody of her siblings or getting public assistance.”
Moments like that help Cannon put life in perspective. “It makes you appreciate how good your life is, and how fortunate you are when you see someone who has lost everything and is put in a situation where they literally have nothing,” he says.
In addition to working on-site, Cannon trains district representatives across the country, serves as the program’s main spokesperson, and acts as a liaison between FEMA and other state and local agencies. Two years ago, Cannon helped draft an agreement between the ABA and FEMA that greatly improved legal assistance to disaster victims.
“Initially if disaster victims had a claim against FEMA, this program wasn’t allowed to deal with them,” says Mark Schickman, a San Francisco lawyer and chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. “That made it very difficult because oftentimes these people needed to have recourse from FEMA. Craig negotiated that out while still maintaining good relationships with FEMA.”
In fact, FEMA was one of several organizations that recommended Cannon for the bar’s Pro Bono Publico Award, which he took home last August.
“The same pride that he shows in doing high-paid legal work, he brings to fulfilling the needs of the poor,” Schickman says. “He does not believe in a two-tier justice system. I think that that’s huge.”
Mother Nature isn’t the only thing that pulls Cannon away from his desk at BB&T. In 2005 he co-founded When Duty Calls, a program offering pro bono legal services to veterans. His pro bono bent was inspired by his great-grandfather, Charles Cannon, an industrial leader in North Carolina who provided affordable housing and health care to military veterans, and his maternal grandfather, a physician in World War II who went on bombing runs with young soldiers in order to comfort them.
“It’s just little stories like that that have made me think, ‘Gosh, you know they did so much with incredible personal risk. Why can’t I just do something as easy as running the disasters?'” Cannon says. “I just think that’s the right thing to do.”