HLS Students Apply Their Skills in New Orleans

BY ANNA BROOK

Much work remains to be done in New Orleans.
Post-Katrina wreckage still on the ground in Biloxi, MS.

More than a year after Hurricane Katrina, Harvard Law School students are still eager to volunteer their skills to help victims of the disaster. During the month of January, more than 30 HLS students joined hundreds of students from around the country in New Orleans and other areas affected by the hurricane. The work centered around assisting indigent clients with FEMA claims, housing, and unemployment. Volunteers worked closely with clients, gathering information and drafting documents.

The placements, coordinated by Lee Branson at the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs, ranged from one week trips, to the entire winter semester, to continuing programs that will run throughout the spring. The law school and local organizations in the New Orleans area teamed up to pay for travel expenses and provide housing. 3L Josh Riley was grateful to the school for providing funding, “I can’t express how much I appreciate the support of the Clinical Office and the Dean of Students Office. I am constantly impressed with their commitment of time and resources to the recovery efforts, and I know that any contributions I have made in New Orleans would not have been possible without them.” Dean Elena Kagan has encouraged the trips and helped with their funding. “I’m very proud that Harvard Law students are continuing to focus on the effort to rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. There is an enormous amount of work still to be done, and as so many students already have demonstrated by their work, the HLS community has a great capacity to make a difference in the area,” she stated.

One project with the Law Clinic of Loyola University New Orleans involved FEMA trailers in Gretna, LA. The city required all trailers to be removed by January 2 or that the inhabitants file an appeal to keep their trailer within one month. Goutam Jois, 3L, assisted residents with filing the appeals and researching whether the eviction plan violated the Federal Fair Housing Act in preparation for a federal claim. 3L Humayun Khalid pointed out that the city would effectively evict those who are disabled or too poor to fix their old homes. Some of the residents had to move out of the trailers, but had not yet received funding to set up alternate housing. In one case, Jois recalled, a woman and her family had moved back into their uninhabitable home after their trailer was removed.

According to 2L Mipe Okunseinde, who also worked with the Loyola Law Clinic, a major issue for the population returning to New Orleans is that rents have soared 40% since the storm and the city’s landlord-tenant laws favor landlords. Okunseinde worked on proposals to reform these laws to make it easier for tenants to return to the city. Bureaucracy in handing out money is another barrier for those who seek to come back to New Orleans. Okunseinde voiced the frustration of those trying to rebuild, “There is all this energy to make it happen but it has been extremely difficult to channel it because of the confusion as to policies and priorities.”

In an effort to lessen this confusion, Laura McIntyre, 2L, worked with the Common Ground Collective on surveys geared to help reopen public housing in New Orleans. The Housing Authority of New Orleans sought to change public housing into mixed income developments, claiming that only 60% of the residents want to move back. McIntyre’s surveys indicated the percentage was much higher and almost all former residents were looking forward to the day when they could go home.

Josh Riley focused his winter term work on job loss following Katrina, representing clients in administrative hearings and writing a report on the Louisiana Labor Department’s response to Katrina. Riley is continuing his involvement in New Orleans during the spring semester with the Matchmakers for Justice Program, serving as an advocate for a displaced family. He describes the work as helping them with “everything from insurance disputes to registering their children in schools.” Riley echoed the experience of other volunteers stating, “The fascinating thing about New Orleans is that all the devastation and ongoing problems there are juxtaposed against the hopeful and buoyant spirit of the residents. New Orleanians have not let anger and sadness dampen their resiliency, and I’ve found that inspiring and a bit contagious.”

Several 1Ls traveled to New Orleans after their exams. They worked at the New Orleans Legal Assistance Center and Innocence Project. The Innocence Project researched the treatment of evidence by the New Orleans Police Department and wrongful convictions. Students at the Legal Assistance Center, including 1L Jeff Dubner, worked closely with a predatory lending attorney. With the high cost of everyday necessities and a decrease in business, some lenders have taken advantage of the situation.

Taking a break from legal work, students spent time gutting houses that were uninhabitable as a result of water damage. Khalid described the experience, “Working away with crowbars, wheelbarrows and brooms was a really hands-on way to get involved with rebuilding New Orleans and a welcome change from the law school routine.” Dubner and others worked in Gentilly, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods. Many houses there are still in the same condition they were in a couple of weeks after Katrina.

Not all the work concentrated in New Orleans. Jason Mehta, 3L, and Jessica Tucker-Mohl, 3L, volunteered in Biloxi, MS with the Mississippi Center for Justice. Throughout their January clinical, Mehta and Tucker-Mohl worked on a plan to provide affordable housing that would let the less affluent rebuild their lives and move back into the area. The plan involved revitalizing abandoned parcels of land and tracing ownership of that land. Part of the work was to arrange workshops in public housing complexes to help residents understand their rights.

“My effect on Mississippi was modest in the grand scheme of things, but I think the effect of Mississippi on me was significant. I appreciate poverty and the issues afflicting minorities more poignantly now,” Mehta said of his time in Mississippi. Tucker-Mohl observed, “The major issues on the Gulf Coast right now are affordable housing, affordable housing, and affordable housing.” She had the opportunity to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a partial solution to this issue. The North Gulfport Community Land Trust had partnered with Unity Homes to install environmentally friendly modular homes that are inexpensive and can easily be delivered to a site on the Gulf Coast.

Culminating the winter’s work, students have teamed up to organize a Mardi Gras themed fundraiser scheduled for February 20. The event will focus on continuing problems in New Orleans and the efforts to resolve them. There will be a movie showing of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, jazz music, and, of course, refreshments.

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