Law School Students, Staff Spend Spring Break on Katrina Recovery Effort
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 last week 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 kind of 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.
Help from Friends
While 12 students volunteered, the entire Law School community drew together to support the effort. The group’s trip was funded by money raised by The Remaindermen (a law student band who gave a benefit concert), the Student Bar Association, alumni, students, professors, and law firm Latham & Watkins.
“We had free lodging provided by U.Va. Law alum Roger Stetter and his wife, Barbara, and Tulane students Greg Filce, Sean Brett, and Porter Nolan [the latter two visited at the law school last semester at U.Va.]. Also, the First United Methodist Church of Gulfport hosted us and provided lodging there,” said Lovelady.
“Furthermore, we would have gone nowhere without the organization of the Student Hurricane Network and the guidance and support of Dean Ballenger.”
“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. “There were countless cars just kind of scattered about and flooded, houses pushed out into the middle of the road, houses completely gone, houses on top of cars, cars on top of each other. It was just overwhelming,” Lovelady recounted. “And it was neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood of that.”
While most of the homes were empty, volunteers were pleased to meet one homeowner, Wanda, who had returned to her house after spending several months in Atlanta. “She thought a lot of her neighbors would come back,” Lovelady said. Wanda tried to get a FEMA trailer on her property, but the agency deemed the power lines in her neighborhood too low, so she was staying in a hotel.
“It’s easy to watch the news clips and see the pictures and know that it’s a lot of damage, but not really appreciate it’s people’s homes and it’s people’s lives,” Lovelady said. “I think it really brought it home to me when I was shoveling up children’s books and stuffed animals and perfume collections—little bits of people’s lives that are now just in a mud heap on the floor.”
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.”
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. The government also needs permission to go on property to clean up debris, Perez pointed out, but homeowners are not easily found. In the seven months since the hurricane, “there has been very little forward movement.”
Perez said she was surprised by the federal government’s absence in the clean-up effort. “Despite the fact that this was a national outrage, there’s a very low level of federal activity and federal involvement,” she said. Perez added that President George Bush visited the lower Ninth Ward during the week. “He seemed to be in touch with the problem. He understood that the uncertainty for the homeowners was probably the biggest obstacle.”
Conditions where some volunteers stayed, near Tulane, were markedly better, but many businesses were still boarded up, including one local post office. “The best-preserved part of town was the French Quarter,” Perez said.
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.
Volunteers also observed the condition of indigent defense. “We went to several bonds hearings to see if people taken into custody could make bail,” Gomaa said.“’Quick justice’ would be the best way to phrase it.”
In one 20-minute session, more than 30 defendants had their hearing. “They didn’t get a chance to offer any evidence on their behalf. The public defenders offered very little advocacy.”
Normally public defenders would offer reasons why the defendant was not a flight risk and should be released on bail, but the attorneys never asked defendants for personal information that might help their case. With only six public defenders in place for the entire city of New Orleans, “public defenders were grossly understaffed and were not doing a good job when they were there,” Gomaa said. “They’re completely overwhelmed.”
Even before Katrina, Louisiana’s defendants were often held longer during the pretrial phase than the maximum sentence they would receive for the charged crime, offering prosecutors a useful strategy to cull plea bargaining.
“I was just amazed at how the whole system of criminal prosecution seems to be messed up,” said Gomaa, who is enrolled in the Law School’s Prosecution Clinic. In New Orleans he saw prosecutors automatically drop cases against defendants who had private attorneys because they were unprepared to try cases.
“From what people have told me, these problems existed before Katrina, but like a lot of things, Katrina brought to the surface what was kept under the rug.” Gomaa went in thinking small changes might improve the system, but “it’s going to take really, really big changes.”
As part of a team of U.Va. law students studying housing legal issues in Gulfport, Miss., first-year law student 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.”
Volunteers also staffed a walk-in clinic for those in need of help with Katrina-related issues. The students worked so hard “we fell asleep in our clothes a couple of times.”
Residents “think that everyone assumes it’s being taken care of,” she said. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth. It really looks like a wasteland. Everyone there wants awareness built up.
“It was just really overwhelming how much there is to be done,” she said. “You can drive for two hours up and down the coast and it all looks the same—just completely destroyed,” she said. “I was shocked by that.”
By the end of the week, it became clear that one realty company in particular had failed to take care of its properties and evicted tenants to double the rent.
“What I saw the most by far is people living in uninhabitable apartments,” Blazer said. By law, landlords are supposed to reduce rent when rentals are damaged, but the housing shortage in the area has some owners looking instead to increase profits.
“It’s not totally black and white because landlords need the money to make repairs,” she said. “As bad as it was, I really loved the place. I think it’s going to come back.”
Another pair of law students volunteered through U.Va.’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’m in the United States.”
Most homes in the area were destroyed, but insurance companies have been slow to respond to residents’ claims. If residents weren’t near the coast (and subject to federal subsidies), flood insurance was exorbitant, Wilcox explained, so they bought wind insurance. But insurers are disputing claims filed under wind insurance, arguing it was actually flood damage—and vice versa for those who had flood insurance.
“We had a chance to meet a lot of residents and their stories are all the same—they are still struggling to receive adequate, if any, insurance money,” she said. Most are long-time residents. “They’ve already survived Camille, and they thought they could survive this.”
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, Miss., 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.”
Messina said the damage was worse than she expected. “It was mile after mile after mile of just foundations.” The damage at times seemed random—a Catholic church closer to the coast was still standing, along with many of its artifacts, but the elementary school behind it was demolished. Three houses would be intact, but the one next door was annihilated.
Although Mississippians made more progress in cleaning up, there were still ghosts of Katrina—rugs, clothes, linens—clinging from trees. “It was almost like things were sacred—like people didn’t want to disturb or remove the victim’s belongings,” Messina said.
Messina and Cronk found residents to be very grateful.
“The people in Mississippi were just unbelievable—their spirit and their kindness—and it was just unreal how nice they were to outsiders and how many people thanked us for being down there,” Cronk said. “Even though we got a little bit accomplished, it was just a drop in the bucket to what they need. Even they say it will be 10 years before they get it back to what it was.”
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.
Katrina Spring Break Volunteers
Ian Atkinson, Will Gomaa, Ryan Harsch, Adam and Tracy Lovelady, Tim McCarten, Lisa Perez, Neela Rathinasamy ’05
Jared Boyd, Natalie Blazer, Damien Lyster, Aaron Mahler
Pass Christian, Miss.
Kelli Scheid, Erin Wilcox
Long Beach & Ocean Springs, Miss.
Diane Cronk, Pam Messina
• Reported by M. Wood