Legal Aid Bureau Discusses Katrina, Honors Alumni


Alumni honored at the Legal Aid Bureau awards ceremony.

On Saturday, October 28th, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) hosted a panel discussion on post-Katrina poverty law challenges and an awards ceremony honoring three well-deserving HLAB alumni. The event, described as both “timely” and “inspiring” by those in attendance, featured four HLS alumni, Brooke Abola ’03, Catherine Bendor ’92, Charles Delbaum ’71, and Sanetta Ponton ’06, who each offered a range of perspectives on issues facing low-income residents and former residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit. Abola, Bendor and Ponton are also alumnae of HLAB.

The panel was moderated by Rick Glassman, former Managing Director of HLAB and current litigation director at the Disability Law Center in Boston. Glassman opened the panel by presenting a slideshow of pictures of the devastation that the storm visited upon homes and businesses in the Gulf Coast region.

Delbaum, who prior to becoming a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center was the Director of Litigation and Advocacy at the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation, described the chaos that his office faced immediately after the storm. He spoke about the difficulties of trying to locate staff members and clients given the lack of cellular phone service and the disturbances that the closure of the courts had on client cases. A major theme throughout his presentation was the need for preparedness before a major disaster strikes so that the prolonged disorder that existed after Katrina can be avoided in the future.

Next to speak was Ponton, who spearheaded volunteer efforts at HLS last year as a 3L. Ponton visited the region on several occasions and described how volunteers from all over the country converged on the area after the storm. With no one group directing the volunteer efforts, volunteers somehow seamlessly connected with residents who required assistance removing moldy sheetrock and soaked carpets from their homes and set up centers in which volunteer attorneys could dispense useful advice on insurance and FEMA.

While it was encouraging to witness these laudable acts, Ponton expressed concern that the potential damaging health effects and corresponding health insurance issues that may arise in the future from home owners and volunteers performing this type of work would fail to receive the close scrutiny that it deserves as those in power turn their attention away from Katrina. She also touched on the civil rights abuses that she investigated as a volunteer with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. One incident involved individuals seeking to escape New Orleans who were prevented from crossing the bridge into nearby Gretna by police officers brandishing guns and dogs. Another incident occurred around the time of Hurricane Rita, and involved multiple cities refusing to accept buses filled with mostly African-American and poor residents of Beaumont, TX attempting to evacuate.

Abola, an associate at Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, took a broader, more policy-focused approach in her discussion. Abola contributed to the Appleseed Foundation Report on the short-term and long-term needs of former New Orleans residents who moved to Birmingham, AL. She discovered that although the cities receiving those who were part of what has turned out to be the largest migration in the history of the United States adequately addressed the short-term needs of the newcomers, there were deficiencies in the provision of long-term services. In particular, the availability of welfare benefits to former New Orleans residents was restricted by cities like Birmingham. Additionally, mental health services for these residents, some of whom may soon be suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, are for the most part non-existent or difficult to find. Even finding out who could use these services is complicated by the fact that many refuse to self-identify, given the stigma that is attached to being a Katrina evacuee.

Bendor, who is the Acting Legal Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, spoke about her involvement in litigation against FEMA, most notably the Beatrice McWaters et. al. v. FEMA, et. al. case. Her account of the long delays and unjustifiable actions of FEMA in the months after the storm engendered a series of gasps among the audience.

Among the many abuses that she described were the evictions by FEMA, on little notice, of people living temporarily in hotel rooms provided by the agency; the requirement by FEMA that persons first apply for loans from the Small Business Association before they could receive temporary shelter in direct contravention of a federal statute; and FEMA’s refusal to allow persons who once shared a household, including residents of a boarding house, to apply for separate temporary housing. The plaintiffs’ claims were mostly vindicated in the Louisiana district court decision issued this summer.

Jacqueline Berrien, an HLS alumnae and attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who attended the panel, closed the panel by encouraging everyone in the room to donate their time and money to Katrina efforts, as issues similar to those discussed during the panel and others yet to be identified will still require attention for years to come.

The focus of the program then moved to the presentation of the Distinguished Alumni Awards to HLAB alumni and former HLAB presidents Juliet Brodie ’91 and Will Gunn ’86 and an award honoring Professor Peter Murray ’67 for his work as HLAB’s first Faculty Director from 2000 – 2006. The Distinguished Alumni Awards were given in recognition of the career achievements, commitment to the mission of the Bureau and dedication to public service of the two recipients.

After receiving her award, Brodie, currently an Associate Professor and Director of the Community Law Clinic at Stanford Law, explained to the students in the audience that it took her many years to develop a career that combined her interests in public service and in teaching and supervising clinical students. Gunn, who recently retired from his post as the chief defense counsel for detainees in Guantánamo Bay and is now the President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, encouraged students to always do what they believe is just, even if it may not be the best move for their career. Professor Murray, also a member of HLAB when he was a student at HLS, appealed to current members of HLAB to maintain the student-centered nature of the organization, even as it becomes more closely connected with the administration of the law school.

After attending the event, Julie Park, 3L and HLAB member, described it as “incredibly encouraging and inspirational.” Several alumni in attendance expressed their hope that HLAB will continue to host such high-quality events in the future.

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