Ahead of a Jan. 9 deadline to submit claims related to a proposed Columbia Gas settlement, the law firm Ropes and Gray and Lawyers for Civil Rights on Monday announced a new partnership to provide free legal help to small businesses in Lawrence affected by the Sept. 2018 natural gas explosions.

According to Lawyers for Civil Rights, hundreds of minority- and immigrant-owned small businesses "suffered devastating loses" from the explosion and fires. Priya Lane, the director of Lawyers for Civil Rights' BizGrow small business project, said many businesses are "scrambling" to submit their claims by next month's deadline.

"Our clients are small businesses that do not have the working capital to recover from a catastrophe of this nature," Lane said in a statement. "Not only have they sustained structural damage, but there is ongoing construction surrounding the buildings which dramatically reduces their ongoing ability to maintain regular clients and attract new ones."

Elizabeth Reza, the Ropes and Gray partner leading the effort, said the legal team is already working with "numerous" small businesses to prepare claims. "Helping get the small business community back on track is an essential part of recovery, particularly for communities of color, and we are proud to be a part of that effort," she said.

Affected business owners can contact Lane at Plane@lawyersforcivilrights.org.