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

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Not Quite Normal...But Getting There

Impressions of a Recovering Metropolis

From the window of the airplane, except for the smattering of blue tarps covering rooftops, New Orleans looked the same as I remembered from my last trip here three and a half years ago. Clean swimming pools gleamed in the late afternoon sun; traffic on the streets seemed to flow; streetlights lined the streets. However, as I deplaned and walked into the almost-deserted airport terminal, something definitely seemed off. For 5:30 on a Sunday evening, the airport was--well--empty. Travellers waiting for departing flights were noticeably absent, leaving empty the rows of chairs in the waiting areas; several of the airport stores were dark. I could not help but think that six months before, the airport had been full of desperate, sick people waiting to evacuate the area for places unknown. See

As Diane drove us from the airport to the hotel (, we all commented that the neighborhoods we could see from the freeway looked similar to neighborhoods everywhere/anywhere. In the early evening light, it was hard to tell whether the occasional boarded-up windows we saw indicated hurricaine-related damage or simply urban blight. Except for the pockets of houses without any lights on at all in some of the areas we drove through, we could have been anywhere in post-industrial urban America.

The French Quarter too, our home for the week, didn't seem that different than I remember, except that there were, perhaps, fewer people around. Bourbon Street still has the same, slightly-pukey smell that I remember disliking the other two times I've been to New Orleans. The rest of the Quarter seems pretty much its same charming, if somewhat kitschy self.

The first real sign that things aren't quite right here came as we started to interact with the locals. On Sunday night, the Student Hurricane Network,, hosted a welcome reception at the Jones-Walker law firm in the Central Business District for the two hundred-plus law students in town this week. Much like people in New York and Washington after September 11th, everyone who was here for Katrina has a story to tell and the cathartic effect of the re-telling and sharing is clear. We arrived in time to hear a skit performed by Tulane Law School students who had been displaced by the storm. As an outsider, the stories were moving to me in a human interest sort of way, but other listeners were visibly affected by the students' stories--more than a few nodded vigorously, cried, hugged their neighbors, and verbalized their agreement with the student performers to express outrage with the government's response to Katrina. Later, a local lawyer told the crowd about how he had been evacuated by a friend with a helicopter and saw axes, hands and, ultimately, people coming out of rooftops as he left New Orleans; he told us that, as much as he wanted to save the people who had camped out on their roofs waiting for evacuation, he could not help. The guilt he lives with now was obvious and incredibly sad.

At the same time, though, there was something inspriational about the gathering -- people from all over the country have been drawn here to help. As Tracie Washington, a local civil rights lawyer reminded the crowd, each generation has its own civil rights battles to fight and this is ours. The challenges related to housing, the economy, government benefits and services, and political/voting rights here will keep progressive-minded civil rights workers busy for the foreseeable future. The ironic thing is that many of these problems were here before. Its just that now we're focused on them. Which is good.

Taking Care of Business
We reported for work at 9:30 a.m. on Monday morning, all sugared- and caffeined-up after a stop at Cafe DuMonde,, where several members of our group ate A LOT of beignets (Mike Petrusic even ate the powdered sugar left on his plate with a spoon!) and drank delicious coffee. The sixteen of us from UNC (joined by two students from Case Western Reserve law school and three University of Iowa law students) are working this week out of space generously donated by the law firm of Phelps Dunbar, They've given us a couple of conference rooms, access to the phone for local calls, and other assorted office-y things. The conference room we were in yesterday looked out on the lake and part of the city. From here we could see an (un)healthy sprinkling of blue tarps covering rooftops and a not-insignificant number of boarded-up windows as a reminder of Katrina's damage. Letters on the nearby Mariott hotel are being replaced this week, as are windows at other neighboring office buildings.

Rachel Piercey, the Executive Director of the New Orleans Pro Bono Project, our host organization for the week, met with us first thing to explain the role that the the Pro Bono Project plays in the greater New Orleans community. Rachel prefaced her discussion of the work we are doing this week by talking about the ways in which Katrina has personally affected the staff members at the Pro Bono Project and the organization itself. The Project has shrunk from six and a half staff members to three and a half as a result of the hurricane while, at the same time, facing an increasing workload. Of the three and a half staff members that are left, three are still living in temporary housing and waiting for repairs to be made to their homes. They are dealing with traumatized pets, sick relatives, long commutes into the city, difficult contractors, and other personal issues, all the while trying to serve the low-income population of New Orleans.

Rachel told us about the Pro Bono Project's major goal for the coming months: continuing to serve their target populations by providing the services the Project has always provided, while assessing the new services that are needed in post-Katrina New Orleans. We're helping the Project with both the old and the new dimensions of its work this week.

Boz, Dan, and Cory are out and about developing a Community Education model, determining how best to utilize law students and lawyers in meeting community needs over the coming months. Rachel mentioned assessing the needs of the Hispanic and Vietnamese communities as being of particular interest, along with identifying the most pressing legal issues in the greater New Orleans area generally. The fearless trio are also identifying the new services the Project could offer, and determining whether other organizations are filling community needs.

Eleven of us (seven UNC folks--Elliot, Emily, Jocelyn, Mike, Rachel, Diane, and I -- the three Iowa students--Deanna, Molly, and Emily -- and Dan Fishbein, a lawyer from Kilpatrick Stockton in Atlanta) are working on succession files. Basically, this means trying to transfer ownership of property from a deceased person to his or her heirs or legatees. The clients (all low-income, i.e., with incomes at 200% of the federal poverty level or less) have come to the Pro Bono Project through outreach efforts. Each of us has real, live clients to help this week; many of us have spoken with these people on the telephone and drafted pleadings and other paperwork that the Project is preparing to file with the local court. Some of the cases involve property that belongs to a person who died long ago, but whose relatives never had reason to file succession papers until the hurricane wiped out or damaged the property; now, these relatives need to gain possession in order to access FEMA or insurance funds to help with rebuilding costs. Other pieces of property belong to a person who died in the storm. For example, my first case involves a man who died in his home in Katrina-related flooding; his children are now trying to take possession of their father's estate. When I realized the circumstances of the father's death, the tragedies suffered by people here became all the more real. And, yet, the client (one of the daughters) could not have sounded more together, calm, and self-assured -- and grateful for the assistance the Project is providing. Hopefully, we'll each be able to move along several files this week to help the clients get their possessory rights clarified soon and assist the Project in clearing its massive docket.

Eight of us (four UNC students -- Aaron, Fang, Jessica, and Vanessa -- one UNC staff member -- Kelly -- the two Case Western students -- Amy and Kathleen -- and Jasa Gitomer from Kilpatrick Stockton in Atlanta) are working on divorce cases. They are preparing pleadings for client seeking an unconstested divorce and preparing for a workshop tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon; each of the volunteers working on this project is meeting with an individual client tomorrow, as well, to help finalize the paperwork. I know less about this project, so hopefully one of my colleagues will post more about this soon!

* * *
As we end our second day of work, it is clear one week is only enough to make an incredibly small dent in the work that needs to be done. But, as we all sit here in a small, windowless conference room working through the details of the lives of generations of New Orleaneans and their property, its good to know that, at least, we're trying to do some good.


  • Wonderfully informative account of your first two days. So glad you sent email with site posting. Love, mom

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:41 AM  

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