In addition to food, shelter, and medical care, many victims of Hurricane Katrina are in dire need of legal advice. Twenty-five Harvard Law School (HLS) students volunteered a week of their winter break to provide free legal and humanitarian assistance to area residents and community organizations in southeast Louisiana. Additionally, eight HLS students worked throughout January earning clinical course credit, primarily with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., and the Gulf Coast.
“There is a huge backlog of legal issues left over from the hurricanes,” said second-year student Ehren Brav. “Most of these involve people being evicted from their apartments – often severely damaged – for not paying rent, appeals to FEMA over benefit decisions, and fights over insurance. Often, the challenge is just finding our clients. I spoke to New Orleans residents in Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Mississippi. They’re constantly on the move between residences and cities.”
Only about 30 percent of the people displaced by the hurricanes have returned, but the legal aid community is bracing for a massive return of residents once the FEMA grants begin to dry up.
In addition to this housing work, HLS students reached out to hotels and to FEMA disaster-recovery intake centers, interviewed immigrant laborers, and analyzed figures and data on how prisoners in the criminal justice system have been impacted. The students worked with a range of national and local organizations providing free legal services including New Orleans Legal Assistance in their New Orleans and Shreveport offices, People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, and a public defender in Alexandria. Several students worked with Common Ground, a grassroots nonprofit group providing humanitarian support to returning residents.
The Law School funded airfare and transportation for the trip while students stayed in housing provided by churches and collaborating organizations, as well as with friends. More money will be needed for an upcoming spring break trip involving a greater number of student volunteers, and the School is planning ways it can provide legal assistance from a distance.
“From the first day of school in September, our students were so eager to contribute to hurricane relief efforts, but organizations in the Gulf Coast weren’t yet ready to use volunteers. Students organized fundraisers in the fall, but the opportunity for them to use their legal skills in hands-on work this January was what they had really been waiting for,” said Lee Branson, HLS’s assistant director for Pro Bono Programs.
“I was challenged by the extent of devastation and the amount of work that needs to be done,” said Tracey Kim, a second-year student who worked to improve the working and living conditions of day laborers. “But I was also inspired by the people [we worked with] and all the other relief organizations trying to make a difference.”
In addition to 33 students from Harvard Law School, nearly 200 law students from across the country spent a part of their winter break in Mississippi and Louisiana.