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Where can Katrina victims get legal help?

As hundreds of thousands of people begin picking up the pieces from last month's hurricanes, a lot of legal questions are surfacing. Danny in Alabama is wondering what to do if your landlord wants to keep charging you for rent for a home that was wiped out by the flood.
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As the flood waters recede, and hundreds of thousands of people begin picking up the pieces from last month's hurricanes, a lot of legal questions are surfacing. Danny in Alabama, for example, is wondering what to do if your landlord tries to keep charging you for rent for a home that was wiped out by the flood.

My brother in law was living in New Orleans during Katrina. He lost everything including his car. He was unable to evacuate because he was a sheriff’s deputy but now has left and vows to never live there again. His landlord is calling saying he owes two months rent even though for one of those months the apartment was under water. Can they do this and if not what legal actions can we take?

          Danny W. -- Pelham, AL

Landlords can try anything they want. But it sounds like this one is all wet.

Hurricane victims who rented their homes don’t have to pay rent if that home was destroyed by either the hurricanes or the flooding that followed, according a terrific document assembled by the Texas Bar Association covering a variety of legal issues for hurricane victims.

If possible, the first thing to do is check your lease to see if it spells out what happens if your apartment or rented house is flooded. Since most people who lost their homes will also have a hard time coming up with a copy of their lease, they'll have to rely on the laws on the books in Louisiana to protect them if the landlord comes looking for rent money.

According to the Texas Bar Association, if a dwelling a “totally destroyed” by disaster, your lease terminates automatically and you don’t owe anything. The landlord usually has to pay back your security deposit and any pre-paid rent for the period after the destruction.

If your rented home or apartment is only “partially destroyed,” things aren’t quite as clear, according to the association. In that case, you have to give written notice if you want to terminate the lease. (That may be hard to do if the landlord has also moved out and hasn’t left a forwarding address.)

But what if, after the floodwaters recede, your landlord makes repairs and then claims your rented home is once again habitable? In that case, you may still be on the hook for rent after the place was fixed up. But you don’t owe anything for the time it was under water.

So before you hand over rent money for a flooded property, contact a lawyer who is familiar with Louisiana housing law. There are a number of groups matching Katrina victims who need legal advice with lawyers who are donating their time to help out. For starters, check out a Web site set up by the American Bar Association’s Center for Pro Bono called Hurricane Katrina Disaster Resource. Two groups, and, have also set up sites with a number of useful links for hurricane victims seeking legal advice.

And if you’re a lawyer, contact these sites to donate your time to help out.

Is it true that if an employer doesn't give an employee a half-hour, non-paid break after six hours of work you have to pay the employee an additional hour?

          Haejin P. -- Washington DC

Only if that’s the deal you’ve made with your boss – either personally or through a collective bargaining agreement. Unless it's spelled out in a contract or union work rules, U.S. labor law doesn't provide you with any legal rights to a break – or even time off for a meal.

According to a spokeswoman at the the Department of Labor, “the Fair Labor Standards Act does not require breaks or meal periods be given to workers. Many employers, however, provide breaks to their employees and breaks of short duration from, 5 to 20 minutes, are common. As a general rule, rest breaks are considered hours worked and meal periods are not considered hours worked.”

With no federal regulations requiring breaks, many states have their own laws government rest breaks and meal breaks -- but most don’t. And the District of Columbia, unfortunately, is not one of them.

Now get back to work.

Post-Katrina, there has been lots of talk of being prepared for a disaster, i.e. updating and keeping your financial records in a safe deposit box away from your house. But what happens to all these records in a case like Katrina where whole towns were submerged along with bank, hospitals and court houses. How can one keep their financial records truly safe from natural disasters?
          Cheryl G. -- Albuquerque, NM

The hardest part of this exercise is deciding which records need to be kept “truly safe” from disaster. That’s what makes personal financial record keeping one of life’s greatest paradoxes: the more you save, the harder it becomes to find the one document you want when you need it. On the other hand, when you finally decide to get more selective, you’ll invariably throw out a statement, bill or receipt exactly one week before you realize you need it.

Most people, for example, like to keep a couple of years worth of canceled checks and credit card statements. Technically, you should keep tax returns for seven years – the period during which you could potentially be audited.

But the list of records that need to be “disaster-proofed” is a lot shorter. Whether you choose to stash them in a safe-deposit box or a fire-proof metal box in your home, you’re not going to have room for last January’s utility bill or two year’s worth of insurance payments.

How well you defend these documents from disaster depends largely on how much you’re willing to spend. There are companies out there that will make copies and store your records deep underground – ready to withstand anything up to and including a nuclear attack.  For most people, that’s overkill. If you’re worried that you local bank isn’t safe enough, you might want to just make copies of your “short list” of records and send them to a trusted friend or relative in another part of the country. Or rent a safe deposit box in another city far from home. If you’re afraid of water damage, try scanning your records and keep a digital copy on a CD.

As for what’s on your “must save” list, everyone’s different. But among the most important would be things like your will, birth certificate, or the title to your home. If you rent, you’ll want to keep a copy of your lease in a safe place. Insurance policies, brokerage agreements, home mortgage papers or other financial contracts should probably also go on the list. Maybe a couple of years’ worth of tax returns – or more if you have a complicated financial life.

For everything else, there’s MasterCard: most financial accounts these days are stored electronically and already backed up in multiple locations. Most utility, phone and bank statements are available now on line. True, it may be more difficult to dispute a bank mistake without your own statement. But you can’t prepare for everything. Better to focus on safekeeping the most important stuff and not worry about the rest.