Spring Break 2006: News Orleans and Mississippi

BY ANGELA YINGLING

Over spring break, HLS students typically embark on a variety of adventures during their week off: some head south to bask in the Caribbean sun, while others travel to Europe or Las Vegas or their own hometowns. Some even travel as far away as Africa, while many remain in Cambridge to catch up on work neglected during the first eight weeks of the semester.

This year, there was one more place added to the list of top HLS destinations: the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. Seven months after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath washed through the region, the Gulf Coast is still welcoming thousands of volunteers helping on a variety of tasks: gutting and decontaminating houses, assisting residents with FEMA claims, and aiding various legal organizations in the area with pro bono work, among other things. This spring, approximately thirty HLS students, with the aid and financial support of the Pro Bono Office, volunteered their time and skills to help with the recovery effort.

Some of the students gathered resident information, aided residents with legal claims, and performed manual labor in the Mississippi areas of Gulfport and Waveland. Several of the students in Waveland lived in truly rustic conditions at the iCare village, sleeping in tents and showering with generally lukewarm or cold water. While the students survived (and some even enjoyed) the Spartan conditions of the village, it also served to remind them of exactly how much the residents of these areas have to deal with on a daily basis. After a particularly frustrating experience trying to fill up the gas for his rented vehicle, Kurt Conner, 3L, noted that, “the people around me had been living this way for seven months… where having three operating gas stations within a ten-minute drive of each other was still a ‘maybe someday’ kind of dream.”

One student working in Gulfport, Sameer Doshi, was assigned the task of driving around several neighborhoods hit by the storm and, as he puts it, “documenting the rich history of the communities”. He was impressed by the resilience and pure grit exhibited by the women with whom he met with. “The women I met are older than my grandparents, but they still drive their cars around town and cook up barbecue in their backyards,” said Doshi. Every one of them had a story about the ‘wade-in’ of 1959, when blacks in town staked their claim on using every mile of the beach. Although some of them are now living temporarily in trailers, these women have survived every other storm that they found in life, and the hurricane of ’05 was not enough to slow them down.”

Some of the students were placed in New Orleans itself, staying at two houses owned by the Episcopalian diocese, and working on a variety of legal and non-legal tasks. A group of students worked with Common Ground to decontaminate the house of a local teacher. The house had been flooded to the attic when the levee broke and there was wide-spread damage. When the students were finished the back-breaking work of removing personal belongings, sheetrock, floorboards, and everything else that had been damaged, there was nothing left but a wooden frame. But this frame, once treated to kill any remaining mold, will hopefully serve as the backbone for a new home for the woman whose old one was destroyed by the flood.

The remaining New Orleans students put their Harvard skills to work at a variety of organizations and government offices such as The Justice Center, The Pro Bono Project, and the Orleans Juvenile Court. Evan Hudson, 2L placed at The Pro Bono Project, found it “interesting to delve into the civil code,” an experience HLS students do not often come across in their studies.

The students placed at the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court were given research assignments that involved long-term projects the court was trying to implement. Although the work was not directly related to hurricane relief, volunteers were needed because the court system had been decimated – workers had been displaced by the storm and the budget cuts (as money had been diverted to more immediate relief efforts) had forced massive lay-offs. Working at the Juvenile Court revealed how deeply the storm had affected every part of the city. Though the building remained intact, the empty offices and courtrooms served as a reminder that the criminal justice system was a victim of the hurricane as well, as the court faces a growing backlog of cases and government lawyers are forced to take on an even heavier workload, allowing them less time with each client or case.

Even while working forty hours or more, the students were still able to enjoy the local culture that remains the heart of the Gulf Coast. The French Quarter of New Orleans had emerged one of the least-hit areas of the city, and many bars and restaurants were open for visitors to enjoy. But the crowds were smaller and the establishments were less crowded than they were before the hurricane. One bartender mentioned that “the crowd tonight [Friday] is about the size you’d see on a Monday before Katrina hit.” The students who were housed with the Episcopalian Diocese were able to see some of the less-touristy sections of New Orleans, catching local bands and neighborhood bars and visiting the area restaurants that had re-opened after the storm. Many buildings still stood empty, but there was plenty of good Southern food, drink, and music available.

It certainly was not a typical spring break trip, but for many, it was even better.

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