Law School Community Welcomes Katrina Evacuees

September 7, 2005
Katrina donation table
The Law Christian Fellowship and the St. Thomas More Society raised more than $3,700 in three days for victims of Katrina.

When Hurricane Katrina shifted towards New Orleans the Saturday before landfall, Tulane Law School second-year Ben Winburn called local friends to see what they were doing. They were leaving town.

"We were kind of caught off guard," Winburn explained. Last year Hurricane Ivan had headed toward the Crescent City and veered towards Mobile, Ala., instead. It didn't even rain. "That was part of the problem. I don't think they realized the severity of the situation."

Winburn's family beach house had been destroyed by the wrath of Hurricane Hugo near Charleston, however, so he was taking no chances. On Saturday morning he left for a friend's home in Covington, north of Lake Pontchartrain. He evacuated Covington the next day, flying out of the Baton Rouge airport. "Your options increase the further you get away from any kind of destruction," said the 29-year-old Arlington, Va., native and Vanderbilt graduate. "All I lost were my possessions and a little bit of my sanity. My entire evacuation was with people who lost their houses, their pets, their families — everything, I mean everything."

Tulane law student Ben Winburn joined the Law School Monday.

When he got home he started calling schools in the area, and talked to Associate Dean for Admissions Susan Palmer on Wednesday. "The madness was just starting to begin down in New Orleans," he said. "It seemed like U.Va. was prepared to take us all in if possible."

The Law School opened its doors to Winburn and 11 other second- and third-year students from Tulane and Loyola of New Orleans law schools. The visiting students attended orientation Sunday and began classes Monday, thanks to the efforts of the entire Law School community.

Palmer, who fielded calls from students scattered across the country in various states of evacuation, said the school received 50 to 100 initial inquiries from displaced law students and their families, but preference was given to third-years and Virginia residents.

"Your first instinct is to help everyone you can," Palmer said. "I don't think any of us realized how many inquiries we would get." Tulane asked law schools who were accepting students to focus their efforts on upperclassmen.

Tulane student Porter Nolan was born and raised in New Orleans, and evacuated with his family Sunday.

Second-year Tulane law student Porter Nolan's family lived blocks from his school, and left town Sunday when the forecast looked grim.

"This was the first time my family ever evacuated for a hurricane," he said, and his family roots in the town go back for generations. Nolan's family relocated to Asheville, N.C., while his stepfather stayed behind to publish the New Orleans Times-Picayune from Baton Rouge. "It was a Herculean effort to get a paper edition out a few days later," Nolan said.

Nolan attended high school at Woodberry Forest in Orange, Va., and worked in Washington, D.C., after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2001, so is familiar with the area. For now, he's sleeping on a friend's sofa until he finds an apartment.

"This school's been incredible with the speed with which they move, and how well they've been able to accommodate us," he said.

The Law School has enrolled the visiting students in courses corresponding as closely as possible to those they signed up for at their home schools, and faculty are helping them catch up on work missed prior to their arrival. Textbook publishers have agreed to provide their books free of charge, and the Law School has provided loaner laptops for those who did not escape with their computers. The students will have access to career counseling services and will be able to request interviews from employers who recruit on-grounds. The Financial Aid office will be available to counsel them as well. 

"Everyone's been very helpful. Students have been quick to hand me notes from classes I've missed," Winburn said. "I've been able to focus on catching up with school, as opposed to worrying about logistics that are for me secondary."

Several peer advisors have been working with the visiting students to meet their needs, including temporary and long-term housing and social events to introduce them to the community. Student Bar Association President Hill Hardman said his e-mail to students requesting hosts for the visitors received 200 responses offering aid of some kind. Some visitors have found homes with law students or relatives, some current students have offered extra bedrooms they have in their home at no charge, and other visitors will be moving into Ivy Gardens, which offered a reduced rental rate and a special month-to-month lease with an arrangement brokered by the SBA and peer advisors.

"Student support has been fantastic," Hardman said. "Everybody wants to know what they can do to help."

Third-year Tulane student Alyssa Carducci made the last flight out of New Orleans Sunday. A self-described "military brat" whose family lives in Atlanta, Carducci had friends across the country and managed to book a flight to Chicago, where she found a flight to Richmond — a short drive from her boyfriend, second-year law student Anthony Esposito. Carducci left her car behind at the airport, and is living out of two small suitcases she brought with her. She called several law schools after Tulane's dean allowed third years to look for alternate education. With plans to work at Troutman Sanders in Atlanta after graduation, completing her third year was critical.

"U.Va. was by far the most organized, and the first to respond and let us know what to expect. They were just on top of the game," she said. Carducci was impressed that three deans attended the evacuated students' orientation Sunday, and with the Courts & Commerce bookstore staff, who came in to help distribute textbooks. "I can't emphasize enough how wonderful U.Va. has been," Carducci said. "People have come up to me after class offering help and giving me their phone numbers. It's just been overwhelming."

The SBA's public service committee is working to coordinate future fund-raising efforts as well, including donations of everything from furniture and appliances for the visitors to clothing and food drives for Katrina victims still in the Gulf region. The committee is also seeking support from local firms to help match Law School donations or make a lead gift.

The Law Christian Fellowship and St. Thomas More Society spearheaded an early fund-raising effort in the days following the disaster, gathering more than $3,700 for the Red Cross to go toward hurricane relief.

"Almost the minute we set up the table, people started walking up and opening their hearts and their wallets to us," said St. Thomas More officer Eric Grant.

"The Law School student body has been extremely generous in offering accommodations, clothing, notes from missed classes, and general hospitality," said Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Martha Ballenger. "Helping these students has afforded us all a way of doing something constructive and tangible to improve the situation for at least a few of the victims of this disaster."

Despite relief efforts now underway in New Orleans, Winburn doubted Tulane would be able to reopen by January.

"Personally I wish I could staple my shoes to the library floor because I've had enough of New Orleans. It's been awful," he said. "I kind of plan my life day by day at this point."

Tulane and Loyola are positioned right next to each other in uptown New Orleans, and their campuses were a highlight of the city's famous streetcar ride down St. Charles Avenue.

Winburn has been able to get through to some friends, mainly through text-messaging and e-mails. One friend is taking the semester off to help in the relief effort. A good friend from Gulfport returned home to find nothing left but the pillars under his house.

"I feel really bad for people down there. I feel bad for people who've lost their homes and families," Winburn said.

If all 194 ABA-accredited law schools take 10 displaced students, each will find a home, Palmer said. But complicating matters is Louisiana's unique civil law system, which is based on French civil code. Other states have legal systems based on English common law, so students planning on practicing in Louisiana usually attend the state's schools. As a result, law schools closer to the affected region have taken a large share of students, including Louisiana State University, which has enrolled 100 students who fled Katrina.

Because the Law School cannot waive tuition funds owed to the Commonwealth of Virginia, Law School Dean John C. Jeffries Jr. has announced that if the visiting students end up paying tuition, the school will offset most or all of those payments with scholarship funds.

"Together with other law schools from across the nation, we are doing what we can to help those whose lives have been so severely disrupted by this terrible tragedy," Jeffries said.

Meanwhile, Nolan hopes to return to his hometown soon. He's not sure of the damage to his neighborhood, on the western side of town, because media coverage has focused on the eastern and northern parts of the city.

"We're hoping that no news is good news," he said. "I think at first we thought we'd be back fairly soon. Now it's sort of indefinite. I'm definitely looking forward to getting back and trying to get the city back on its feet. In the meantime, I'm feeling pretty lucky to be up here."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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