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

Sunday, March 19, 2006

If Only Every Week Were Spring Break Week

Several of the posts on this blog allude to the reality that one week is not nearly enough to make a dent in the havoc that Katrina wrought. It is awesome (in the true sense of the word) that so many students and others with a spring break week to spare spent the past week in New Orleans working on clean up and recovery efforts. See And helping each "starfish," as Aaron wrote last week, is surely important. I am proud of the work that the succession workgroup was able to do, even if our contributions only helped to push our files a little closer to completion and even if I wish I could have filed papers for at least the one client I worked with whose father had died in the flood.

Still, as I sat in the airport on Friday waiting to leave town along with other spring break travellers, I couldn't help feeling sad. I think the sorrow stemmed from the fact that there were, literally, hundreds of us leaving town -- students on spring break leaving after our five or six or seven days of work and contractors who spend their weeks in New Orleans and surrounding areas, but escape on weekends to go home to Chicago or Saint Louis or other, similar places that are far-removed from the storm -- and, simultaneously, merely a trickle of people coming in to the city. As it had been on Sunday when I arrived, more than half of the gates at the airport were deserted. And I don't just mean that there weren't people travelling; the airlines had pulled out, leaving the information screen behind the gate desk dark and blank, and restaurants in both the gate area and the terminal were shuttered. The contrast became ever more clear on my layover at O'Hare in Chicago, which looked like an airport is supposed to look on a Friday evening -- people everywhere, crowds at the food counters, lines in the bathrooms. How long, I wondered, before New Orleans's Louis Armstrong International Airport -- where ghosts of those who were stuck there for days during Katrina still linger -- will approach even one-tenth or one-fifth of that level of activity?

Spring break comes only once a year. True, there were students in town the week before us, and more are likely on their way this week and next, but a massive and sustained effort is needed to help New Orleans and other Gulf areas get back on their feet. And its not just about the bandaids that we apply retroactively by cleaning up destroyed houses, helping survivors with divorces or successions, or figuring out how to address particular unmet legal needs that have been brought to light by hurricane recovery efforts. The social, economic, and political barriers to true recovery are much larger and require more attention than students on a week of spring break can provide. If only every week were spring break, maybe we could make a larger difference, but even then, the problems are bigger than that, and, frankly, I'm not sure that outsiders are best-equipped to deal with these issues or find workable solutions. As I reflect on my week in New Orleans, I think I agree with Mike Petrusic's blog comment that the most important thing we can do going forward, in lieu of (or in addition to) our continued labor, is to keep the attention of policymakers focused on the deep-seeded problems that were brought into focus so sharply last August and September. The state of the Ninth Ward speaks for itself -- Katrina did a lot of damage but, as Aaron wrote in his blog entry, things clearly were not all that great before Katrina.

Thanks to the UNC Pro Bono Program, Diane Standaert and Dan Harrison for their unbelievable organization of this trip, the New Orleans Pro Bono Project for allowing us to help them with their work, Phelps Dunbar for housing us for the week, and the Donald & Elizabeth Cooke Foundation and the Carolina Center for Public Service for covering part of our expenses. This truly was the capstone of a nearly-concluded law school experience.



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