Law School Students, Staff Spend Break on Katrina Recovery Effort
Natalie Blazer stands before the destruction in a residential neighborhood in Waveland, Mississippi.
Between endless blocks of destroyed houses, cars, and neighborhoods in New Orleans and coastal homes stripped down to their foundations in Mississippi, Law School student and staff volunteers who traveled to Hurricane Katrina-ravaged areas during spring break hoped they made a dent in the massive effort required to get the region back on its feet, and at the same time were overwhelmed with the scope and scale of what still needed to be done.
“While I had seen the news clips and the news coverage, I don’t think I appreciated just how bad it was,” said first-year law student Adam Lovelady, who organized the largest contingent of student volunteers, many of whom traveled to New Orleans as part of a two-pronged effort to clean up houses in the Ninth Ward and to monitor the taxed city’s faltering criminal justice system. “There’s still so much uncertainty of what the rebuilding plans are going to be that it left us in a funny spot of not really knowing the big picture. We just did the best we could in our little spot, and hoped for the best.”
Lovelady and several students volunteered as part of the Student Hurricane Network, a national organization formed by law students who wanted to help in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Lovelady, his wife Tracy, and several other students volunteered with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) on stripping down water-logged houses in New Orleans. Working in crews of 10 to 15 volunteers for each house, they donned stifling Tyvek suits, gloves, and goggles while tearing down drywall and removing damaged belongings, rotted wood, and flooring.
“It was really sad because it was people’s lives you were shoveling up, and throwing in a wheelbarrow and tossing on the side of the street,” said Lovelady. Some houses sustained damage from a few feet of water, while others near the levee that had been completely covered were still damp and were affected by rushing water as well.
Second-year law student Lisa Perez also volunteered for ACORN. “After watching all the developments on TV, I really wanted to do something about it,” said Perez, a Puerto Rican native who lived through the eye of Hurricane Hugo as a child. To receive help from ACORN volunteers, homeowners paid a small fee and indicated they wanted to come back.
“When you first get there it’s almost completely desolate. You don’t really know what the utility is of what you’re doing,” Perez said. “One thing that really struck me was the importance of leadership in rebuilding, and the role of law in that process.”
The remains of a shopping center in
Perez said a major stumbling block for the Ninth Ward was uncertainty over what houses would be demolished, and what would be restored. “People don’t know whether to come back and start rebuilding.” In nearby St. Bernard’s Parish, which also was disastrously damaged, rebuilding efforts are further along because officials have already made a plan. Home ownership is also more complicated in the Ninth Ward because many residents did not get home titles formally transferred when their parents died, which makes it more difficult to ensure grants that are given out go to rebuilding homes.
A second team of two law students and one recent graduate focused more on legal issues in New Orleans, working with the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center (LCAC), a part of the Justice Center, a nonprofit criminal defense organization providing representation to indigent defendants across the Deep South.
“The goal was to get people out of jail that had been held in jail for a long time—sometimes more than six months—without a hearing,” said third-year law student Will Gomaa, who volunteered for the project. The LCAC filed habeas petitions in federal court to try to release defendants who had not been granted hearings. Under Louisiana law, defendants must have a probable cause hearing before a judge within 45-60 days, a longer period of time than in most states.
After Katrina hit, the governor suspended the timetable for those jailed until January of this year. Gomaa and other volunteers compiled information on defendants into a database, also tracking what crimes they were charged with. But it was difficult to even know how long prisoners had been jailed.
As part of a team of UVA Law students studying housing legal issues in Gulfport, Miss., first-year Natalie Blazer also saw problems, but ones that were complicated by Katrina’s profound effect on landlords as well as tenants. Blazer and others worked for the Mississippi Center for Justice, where they observed court cases on housing issues and surveyed conditions in rental units and complexes, gathering data to identify broader trends.
“Landlords weren’t making repairs, a lot of tenants lost their jobs and couldn’t make rent, but a lot of landlords lost their houses too,” Blazer said. “We put together all the data so the attorneys could figure out which apartment complexes were the worst.”
Another pair of law students volunteered through UVA’s alternative spring break in Pass Christian, Miss., once a town of 7,000, now reduced to half that size. While bunking in the AmeriCorps Tent City, law students Erin Wilcox and Kelly Scheid, along with undergraduate volunteers, gutted damaged homes, re-created a lost animal shelter by building dog pens and an irrigation system, and worked in food kitchens. The city was only a few miles from Katrina’s eastern eye wall.
“A lot of us assumed we were going to be in the process of rebuilding, but the city wasn’t even close to being ready for that,” Wilcox said. “I had to constantly remind myself I was in the United States.”
Wilcox was surprised by the lack of federal infrastructure. Other than FEMA, which has plans to wrap up emergency operations there soon, only AmeriCorps, the federal volunteer program, was evident. Funding cuts of the program may further reduce their numbers next year.
“I think that’s what affected me most—just seeing how little our government, our country, is doing.”
While students had the week off for spring break, two staff used their own leave, and funds, to volunteer in Long Beach and Ocean Springs, Mississippi, through Habitat for Humanity.
“I had helped build some of the frames [for homes to go to Katrina-ravaged towns] on the Downtown Mall in November, and I just felt like I wanted to follow through,” said faculty secretary Diane Cronk.
Cronk and co-worker Pam Messina, who have both volunteered for Habitat for Humanity’s Women’s Build before, traveled with a group of 28 undergraduate students in vans and stayed in a local church while they raised walls on houses, corrected problems with imported frames, and set the stage for home foundations. They also prepared a room donated by the Salvation Army for use by Habitat. Soon after arriving they visited New Orleans, where they saw a much different picture.
“In New Orleans it didn’t look like they were doing much to get their feet back on the ground,” Cronk said. “Mississippi was really making an effort to do this and just work on it day and night.”
The Habitat International leader there told volunteers that 30,000 had signed up to help, but considering the extent of the damage, Messina guessed they would need many more. Some residents suggested they might leave for safer places to live, which saddened Messina, considering it has been their home for so long and they would be leaving their families.
On the other hand, “There’s still nothing between the Gulf and the land, and it could happen again next year. You just never know,” she said.