For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Thursday, March 16, 2006

“Crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good”

The Consummate Tourist

This week has been a strange and wonderful and surreal experience so far. This is my first trip to New Orleans, so even though I came down here to serve others, for the most part I can’t help being a total tourist. We are staying in the French Quarter, which pretty much epitomizes everything I had ever dreamed about the Big Easy. Everyone that knew I was coming down here had something to recommend, some place I simply had to eat, a street I simply had to walk down. The architecture here is stunning, and the city, particularly the French Quarter, has a sense of history and tradition that is almost palpable. There are still beads in the trees from Mardi Gras, and there is going to be a huge St. Patrick’s Day parade on Friday. Bourbon Street is not very populated, but it is definitely bumping. Sometimes I get the feeling that I am in a place that has been laughing to keep from crying. As for me, the consummate tourist, I’m trying to experience New Orleans as fully as possible in our free time. Every meal has been some sort of Cajun or Creole dish, every cup of coffee has to have chicory in it. I’ve eaten frog legs. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures. It really feels like a vacation.

On another level, I feel selfish to be enjoying myself as much as I am. Although it isn’t as apparent downtown and in the French Quarter, which were above the worst flooding, even these areas are still working through the aftermath of the hurricane. There is construction and repair going on everywhere in the downtown sector, but it just looks like the same sort of construction that is happening in downtown Raleigh between the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. It didn’t really feel like I was in a Katrina-stricken area until I got out of the city. The farther out you get from downtown, the greater the amount of debris left uncleared and structures left unrepaired.

The Ninth Ward

We went on a tour of the Ninth Ward yesterday, which brought another mix of emotions. The houses are in shambles. It is as bad as you can imagine. Some houses and debris piles were obviously the result of the actual flooding, while other piles are evidence of the recovery and rebuild. From what a contractor told me on the flight in, people have had no choice but to completely gut their houses, tearing out everything but the frame and the roof, treating what’s left for mold, and starting almost from scratch. There are piles in front yards that represent what used to be the insides of those houses. There are FEMA trailers set up just outside of some of the houses, which people are using as homes while they work to make their own houses habitable. There are still X’s on the doors indicating when houses were searched and what was found in them. I learned that TFW spray painted on the front of a house means that Toxic Flood Waters had seeped into it.

I felt a lot of empathy for the people who were affected by Katrina, some of whom were members of my family. Even though I came down New Orleans to offer my time and energy to help the Pro Bono Clinic serve the community with sincerity and solidarity, I totally felt like I had no business being there in the Ninth Ward, driving up and down the streets while people sat on their porches, staring at us as we crept by in our white minivan. I felt almost as if I should let them grieve and regroup in peace, without making them a spectacle for my own educational edification. I honestly didn’t take the tour because I wanted to be a disaster tourist. At the same time, if I was a resident of the Ninth Ward sitting on the porch of my gutted house, looking at our van creep by, that is exactly what I would have thought. I wouldn’t be thinking, “Gosh, I sure hope those kids in khakis and polo shirts have learned something valuable, and I hope they take what they have learned and tell others of my suffering spreading the word of the devastation of Katrina to college campuses throughout the country.” I wouldn’t care about any of that. I’d care even less if I knew those same kids were about to go eat probably $1000 worth of great food at a fancy downtown New Orleans restaurant, courtesy of a big law firm, as soon as they got done touring the garbage dump that used to be my neighborhood (the dinner was fantastic, by the way).

I took a lot of pictures. I tried not to take pictures when anyone who lived there was looking because I didn’t want to cheapen their suffering or trivialize their experience, and I certainly didn’t want to further legitimate our appearance as disaster tourists. Still, I felt like I was being disrespectful even though I don’t think there was fundamentally anything insensitive or uncouth about documenting the devastation. By the end of the tour, I was so dazed from what I had seen that I wasn’t even looking in the camera, I was just pointing and shooting if I saw something interesting. I ended up with a lot of blurry and poorly framed pictures, which somehow seems fitting.

In the midst of all this devastation, there was something that made me feel hopeful. We saw an older gentleman in his front yard, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, mowing his lawn. Across the street was a pile of garbage, there were boats stranded on the side of the road, and there were blue tarps on the roofs. But this one man was taking pride in the appearance of his yard. His grass was getting too tall. It was both melancholy and uplifting at the same time, and really symbolized the experience and resilience of the people in the Ninth Ward for me. Things look terrible, people have been driven from their homes, the ground and walls have soaked for days in a toxic soup, but life goes on. It has to, and those people are surprisingly well adjusted considering the hardships they have suffered over the past six months.

Kelly Podger told us as we were leaving the Ward that she spent a couple of years down here doing Teach for America, and she made a comment that I thought was simultaneously really disturbing and insightful. She said something to the effect that, while it was obvious the area had been affected by the hurricane, it looked very poor and rundown before Katrina hit it. The hurricane made things worse, but they weren’t all that great to begin with. After she said that, as I looked at the houses and buildings we passed, I could see that Katrina wasn’t entirely to blame for this squalor. It made me feel a little ashamed that it took something like this hurricane to draw the national eye to their situation, and even more sad at how our government still seemed to be failing them. All the good intentions and empty rhetoric in Washington won’t rebuild a house.

The Divorce Workshop

We saw a large group of students walking down the street in the Ninth Ward wearing what appeared to be Tyvek suits, pushing wheelbarrows and carrying tools. They were working hands-on at the epicenter of the devastation. I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have just come down to do construction work instead of legal work, maybe I would have had more of a direct impact. It turns out that New Orleans, particularly the poor of New Orleans, need all kinds of help, and I’m proud to have some skills to contribute. Not everyone can provide legal services, and the need for legal services is high in the post-Katrina environment.

I am a member of the group who is dealing with uncontested divorces. On Monday, a gentleman by the name of S. Guy deLaup came in and gave us an overview of divorce law in Louisiana. He also went through the pleadings we were going to use when we prepared documents for our particular clients. Mr. deLaup was an extremely nice person, very knowledgeable, eager to answer our questions, and very personable. He was completely unassuming. We found out later that he is the president-elect of the Louisiana State Bar Association. If S. Guy deLaup is representative of Louisiana leadership style, I like it a lot.

Before I came down here, I couldn’t figure out why I was traveling to New Orleans to do divorces. My Uncle Roy, who sponsored my ticket down here, asked me the same question. Actually, pretty much everyone asked me why I didn’t just stay in Durham and do divorces, and I didn’t have a good answer. It seems like law students in New Orleans should be doing something more relevant, like helping displaced residents get money from FEMA or their homeowner’s insurance or suing crooked landlords or something.

At our training, Mr. deLaup explained how even divorce is a Katrina issue. Apparently, FEMA money and trailers are only paid out to each household. If two people are married, they only get one dose of FEMA help, even if they don’t have anything to do with each other anymore. People who have been separated for years without getting divorced are finding themselves ineligible for full disaster relief as a result of their marital status. Also, there have been issues where one spouse collected money for their house or other property from FEMA or an insurance company without the knowledge of the other spouse. When the second spouse made their claim, they discovered everything had already been paid out. There are actually very good reasons for law students to come down to New Orleans and help people get divorced.

On Tuesday we spent most of the day preparing petitions for divorce and the accompanying affidavits. We also contacted many other clients of the Pro Bono Clinic to try to find out where they were and if they still wanted to proceed. There were a lot of disconnected phones, and a lot of people who had evacuated to other states. We set up the intake schedule for the next two weeks with people we were able to get in touch with. We also worked on updating and standardizing the template used by the clinic to draft pleadings in the different parishes that it services.

Yesterday (Wednesday) I truly understood why we were here. We held a divorce clinic at the Pro Bono Clinic’s offices. We were supervised by Jasa Gitomer, an attorney from Kilpatrick Stockton. She is fantastic and awesome. We got to meet the clients and put faces to the files we had worked on for the past couple of days so we could verify their information and get their signatures on the affidavits. The clients I met with were so grateful to us for the work we had done. It was obvious that everyone was struggling to get back on their feet after the hurricane, and this was one more piece of their lives that was getting put in order. I know that everyone had a very positive experience with the people they helped.

I learned today that while it may be more “sexy” to dispense justice in large doses, like fighting to keep FEMA from evicting residents from area hotels this week, it is equally important to dole out justice in smaller portions, one person at a time. I helped some people this week. I really helped them. I didn’t change the world, and New Orleans is still going to be reeling from Katrina at the end of the week when I go back to Carolina. But I know that I came down here for a good reason. I feel like the little boy in the story who was throwing starfish back into the ocean after the tide had gone out. He knew he wouldn’t be able to save them all, but he sure did make a difference to the ones he tossed back into the water.


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