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

Sunday, March 19, 2006

"When the Levee Breaks, Mama You Got to Move."

“Taste My Justice!” – The Tick

I am at the airport, waiting for my flight home. Leaving New Orleans this morning was hard. The actual leaving was easy, because I was so tired from self-induced sleep deprivation you could have led me off a cliff and I wouldn’t have cared. The mental leaving, however, was much harder. I bonded to New Orleans differently and more quickly than I have bonded to any other place I’ve ever been.

On Thursday (March 16th) we went to Jefferson Parish to file the pleadings we had gotten signed the previous day. It was not, as you can imagine, a very dynamic experience, but still it provided a feeling of resolution to the work we had done over the past week. The Jefferson Parish courthouse is in Gretna. I didn’t get a chance to see much of Gretna, but I got the impression that it was not a large town. The people were all very friendly. I think the lady who file-stamped the pleadings at the clerk’s office was amused at the fact that there were six people standing around her while she went through what appeared to be a very routine procedure. It was like the start of a joke (How many law students does it take to file a petition?…) In another reminder of Katrina, the assistant clerk stopped Kelly when she took a business card to jot a note down on the back and gave her a post-it instead. She told us that supplies had been short since the hurricane.

Since Katrina had displaced so many people, some of our cases involved service of process to other states, so that complicated things somewhat. Other cases involved petitioners who were so poor they couldn’t even pay the court costs, and had to proceed in forma pauperis. This meant that an additional application had to be filled out during the interview for review by the clerk. One case involved both issues, and for some reason it had to be signed off on by the (or maybe just a) Parish Commissioner himself.

Undaunted in our quest for justice, five law students (sans Kelly Podger, who is fantastic and awesome) took the elevator upstairs into the bowels of the Jefferson Parish administrative/adjudicative labyrinth to deliver the application, pleadings, and cover letter prepared by the parish Collections Officer. (How many law students does it take to deliver an in forma pauperis application?…) We were supposed to give the application to the Commissioner’s Clerk. Unfortunately, she didn’t answer when we knocked. A helpful lady sitting in the hall told us she had gone to Subway. Desperate to conclude our business at the courthouse and refusing to leave without a handful of delicious justice, I knocked on the Commissioner’s office.

The Commissioner was in. He cracked the door and asked me what I wanted. I told him I was on a quest for justice. Then, out loud, I told him we were asked to bring an IFP application up from the clerk’s office for his signature. He reminded me that those things go through his clerk. I told him she was at Subway, and that I was from a pro bono volunteer from North Carolina, which was why I was unfamiliar with the protocol. Then, in retrospect, I kind of invited myself into his office, and then I also, I guess, kind of invited everyone else into his office too. We all sat down and he asked us what years we were in school. He told us he had lived in Chapel Hill for a couple of years while his wife was in school, and told us what a Parish Commissioner’s job description entailed. Then he signed the petition (yay!) and shook our hands, thanking us for giving up our time to come down and help. Jessica Loung was so excited to be hammering out justice firsthand that she was radiating delight, almost literally bouncing off the walls on more than one occasion. I could tell that her enthusiasm for the judicial process was both shocking and refreshing to the ladies working in the clerk’s office.

Having completed our mission, we took a moment to congratulate ourselves on a job well done, almost strutting out to the parking lot. We were spread out side by side in a line, walking purposefully to our minivan. Kelly Podger (who rules) said it was like the opening credits of Law and Order. Now there’s a Law and Order that still hasn’t been made: Law and Order – Pro Bono Project.

I Heard Screams in the Silence

Buoyed by the recent conclusion of our project, we headed out to see where the canal had breached. As we neared the end of the directions Diane had given us, I got this strange feeling that we weren’t in the right place. Nothing seemed very messed up. Sure, there were some Katrina repairs going on, but for the most part the neighborhoods and shopping centers looked fine. It seemed like there would have been more damage right at the breach. Boz showed me on a map what had happened. Apparently, floodwaters backed up into a canal. One side of the canal held. One side didn’t. We were on the side that had held, so there was no damage. When we crossed over the canal, I saw that there was a very fine line between life and death. That line was precisely the width of the canal.

On the side of the breach, the sheer force of the collapse was immediately apparent. It looked like a war zone. There was no grass, no shrubs, no small trees. Just dirt. Some of the huge oaks had survived. Some huge oaks were lying on their sides. Or on cars. Or on houses. Houses had been ripped from their foundations and spun. Not just a foot or two. More like tens of feet. One house had the canal side completely sheared off, exposing the kitchen and dining room. The chandelier was still hanging in the dining room. It looked like a Barbie house where there was no fourth wall. Cars were crumpled and crushed and lying everywhere. One car was lying pointed downward through the roof of a garage, as if it just had been picked up and thrown on top of it.

There were some contractors around, but not very many. I couldn’t tell exactly how much work was going on in this area. There wasn’t as much debris around as I would have imagined, but I was unsure if that was because of cleanup efforts or because the force of the water had scoured the land clean and left the debris farther downstream. We were standing at ground zero, so the water pressure must have been unimaginable.

I did see some renovation going on in the area. On one of the main through-streets, there were signs offering various services such as tear-outs and mold treatments covering every telephone pole as far as I could see. Maybe we were there towards the end of the workday so there weren’t as many contractors plying their respective trades. I wouldn’t be surprised if they completely redevelop this area. The houses are nice. Really nice. Not mansion caliber, but definitely upper middle class. I’d be happy to have one like that someday. I was surprised that the land right next to the canals was so valuable. Then again, I imagine no one living there ever seriously considered that the canals could break.

One house in particular stuck with me. It had banners outside of it that say “Hold the Corps Accountable”. The orange spray paint used to mark the front says “Danger.” Underneath it is a skull and crossbones, and next to the skull are the letters “RIP.” There is a picture of a different house with the same markings further down this blog, and pics of the one I'm talking about in the album I posted.

I already knew that people had died the day the levee broke, but knowing that someone in particular had died in this particular place finally broke me down. I cried as I walked down the street. I’m glad no one was standing near me. Then again, I’m sure I’m not the only one of us who wept as we stared at devastation that may have been, as the country is learning, entirely preventable.

As I walked down the street, I thought to myself that this is the closest I’ve ever been to a site that looks like a war zone. I thought briefly of the war in Iraq, and how neighborhoods must look when we drop bombs on them. I flashed back to a T-shirt I had seen in the French Quarter that said “Make Levees, Not War.” All of the sudden it seemed like more than just a catchy modification of a 1960’s cliché. It seemed like a legitimately good idea. I’m not a news buff, but I don’t think anyone would dispute that the war in Iraq has been expensive as hell. There WAS money there to fix these canals. There IS money there to fix these canals. There IS money there to reclaim the Ninth Ward. There IS money there to clean the mold out of the untouched schools. We just would never spend it that way. As a country, we are like the heroin addict who never has money for food or shelter, but always finds money for more heroin.

When I’m at a museum looking at an artifact, or when I’m walking through an historic property, I often try to transport myself back in the time and place of the event. It’s probably the one shred of creativity and imagination that debate, a master’s degree, and law school was unable to program out of me. Sometimes I am really successful. I can hear things, smell things, feel things from the past. I usually don’t see things though, beyond still-motion flashes. That happened to me on the streets where the levy broke. I doubt my impressions were factually accurate. Someone told me the hurricane had already passed when the levee finally broke. That didn’t happen in my imagination. It was dark, and raining hard, the wind was blaring, and the waters were rising. I thought what it must have been like to be alone that night. Or to be with someone you wanted to protect but couldn’t. I felt the fear. I heard the screams. It was terrible.

And Now For Something Completely Different

The ride home was somber, much like the ride home from the Ninth Ward had been. We got back to the hotel and regrouped, regrounded, and put on our tourist hats. We decided to contribute to the community in another way: by leaving them with many of our fat tourist dollars. After a fantastic meal of crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole, and jambalaya at The Gumbo Shop we (me, Boz, Fang, Elliott, Jessica, and Corey) walked down to Rev. Zombie’s Voodoo Shop. It was laughable, full of kitschy stuff that didn’t seem like it could possibly bring pain and suffering down on your enemies. It was more like what you’d get if you crossed the Halloween section at Wal-Mart with a head shop.

While Boz and I were making fun of things, Elliott took a picture of something we had been pointing at. A voice from the counter said, politely but firmly, “No Pictures.” Once we looked around, we could see No Photo signs everywhere AS IF THEY HAD APPEARED OUT OF NOWHERE. Not ten seconds after that happened, Elliott’s camera FLEW OUT OF HIS HAND (or he dropped it, depending on who you want to believe) and it hit the ground, spewing batteries everywhere. The telephoto lens was broken from the impact. In retrospect, as Boz pointed out, Elliott was probably startled by the reproach of the weird looking ska-zombie clerk and didn’t have a good grip on the camera. OR….it could have been a VOOOOODOOOOO SPELL! In either case, Boz and I stopped making fun of things in the store, just to be safe.

After that, we all went to a praline shop next to Café du Monde for dessert. I had my first praline. It was decadent and delicious and it made my teeth hurt, as anything made primarily of butter and brown sugar should. We met up with Dan Harrison. Then we headed back to the Voodoo Shop to get our tickets for a walking Haunted New Orleans Tour. Corey decided to watch the basketball game. Boz wasn’t into going at first, but he acquiesced after Dan said he’d go. Once we were almost there, Dan said he hadn’t actually planned on going but was just helping us get Boz to go, and split from the group to watch basketball. Boz tried to bolt several times, but we kept prodding and cajoling him until one of the tour guides came over and gave him the soft sell. After that, he pulled out his $17.00 (with student discount) and surrendered to the magic. Mike and Vanessa met up with us there.

I personally think it was well worth the price of admission (although Boz, in true lawyerling fashion, noted as we were on the tour that we could have just followed them around even if we hadn’t paid because they were on public streets and they couldn’t stop us from being there). I love walking tours and I love ghost stories, so I was already predisposed to approve of the experience. We got a quick history lesson of the violent roots of New Orleans, from its founding by the French to its days under Spanish rule and its brief second stint as a French colony before passing to the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. We learned about fires that twice burned down most of the city. We saw old buildings and had their histories explained to us along with some creepy ghost stories. One house in particular had a horrible and gruesome tale associated with it. After the tour, walking down the streets of the French Quarter was different because I realized that the buildings that housed most of these cheesy daiquiri shops and t-shirt emporiums were actually a couple of hundred years old. The new context provided by the tour helped bring the history of the area alive for me even more.

We regrouped again, and later everyone decided to go down to Bourbon Street for one last night of fun. We walked the length of the street, enticements and sins hiding behind every door. Bourbon Street is a bizarre place. Part carnival, part red-light district, it epitomizes the bacchanalian ethic of Mardi Gras. It’s like the pilot light in the New Orleans oven. It burns steadily throughout the year, and ignites the entire city once a year in a bonfire of hedonism before retreating back down to simmer at this one street. It’s like a Mardi Gras concentrate. Just add liquor and beads, wait ten minutes and serve.

Iron Chef!

We were the recipients of another unexpected treat this week. Iron Chef Sakai, the French-trained Iron Chef, was in town too doing some sort of exhibition at Restaurant Stella, the restaurant associated with our hotel, Hotel Provincial. We had been seeing these Japanese guys walking around with shiny black pleather jackets that said “Japanese Television Press” on the back, but it was a couple of days before we found out why. I personally only saw him once and said hi, but others had more intimate encounters such as hand shaking and high fives. Elliott and Eric even had their pictures taken with him! Luckies! They would make good paparazzi celebrity stalkers. Too bad that luck didn’t hold with them at Harrah’s though. Iron Chef Sakai seemed like a super friendly guy. I only saw him for a second, but he looked very shiny to me, like John Edwards.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehn, Good Night

The next day we all met back at Phelps Dunbar, the law firm that had graciously donated conference space for students to work. We had a roundtable and debriefing, where each group reported on the work it had done, their responses to the experience, and we all handed over our files to Ellen, an attorney for the New Orleans Pro Bono Project. The most interesting part of the morning was when Boz and Dan and Corey told us what they had learned about different groups and social movements in the City, particularly the Ninth Ward. There is a lot of talent out there, many people willing to help, and even more people who need help. The challenge is to effectively connect the helpers with the helpees. Housing is, obviously, the paramount concern in the area. Coalition building and a certain degree of centralization appear to be important to most effectively use the resources and goodwill that have emerged from the tragedy.

After that, we checked out of the hotel and started heading our separate ways. I went to lunch with Dan, Corey, and Boz, where I rounded off my Cajun experience with some boiled crawfish. Immediately thereafter, we headed off to Café du Monde so Boz could indulge his passion for beignets one final time. Diane and Elliott met up with us there. For several days there had been talk of a Beignet Eating Contest between Dan and Boz that finally came to fruition. It was a tough battle, but Dan eventually prevailed, consuming a full dozen beignets to Boz’s nine. To be fair, Boz’s beignets were bigger than Dan’s. On the other hand, Dan consumed some Crawlicious Potato Chips and several glasses of water after finishing his fourth plate and waiting for Boz to clear his third plate. Complaining about how hungry he was, he attempted to eat the remainder of Diane’s muffaletta, and even asked Boz for some of his beignets. Halfway into the contest, he revealed that he had consumed an entire El Gigante Burrito from Banditos as an undergrad. This was probably relevant information for Boz, and would have affected his decision to challenge Dan in the first place.

After Diane took Boz, Corey, Dan, Jessica, and Fang to the airport, Elliott and I decided to spend the rest of the day in the French Quarter. We went to St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, where we found the tomb of the first black mayor of New Orleans right next to the tomb of notorious “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau. What originally caught my eye about Laveau’s tomb was the fact that it was covered with “XXX” symbols. Wikipedia says: “The tomb continues to attract visitors who draw three crosses (XXX) on its side, hoping that her spirit will grant them a wish.” There were coins all around the tomb, flowers, necklaces and other offerings. The flowers looked fresh. Apparently the voodoo queen has not been forgotten.

We also got to experience the Quarter during St. Patrick’s Day. I imagine it was closer to what the city looked like before Katrina, except that everyone was wearing green. The streets were awash with green shirts and hats. After having dinner at a café on Decatur and listening to a jazz band, Elliott and I were privy to a St. Patrick’s Day parade. As parades go, this one was pretty short, but we met this drunk older lady who basically reached into a passing carriage and robbed them of many beads, which she generously gave to Elliott and myself. Adorned with our new Mardi Bling, we spent the rest of the evening on Bourbon Street, listening to jazz and blues bands before Diane and Jocelyn swooped in and picked us up.


Overall, I had a very holistic and well-rounded experience this spring break. I performed community service, but it didn’t feel like a sacrifice. All week, people told me how grateful they were for us giving up our spring break to come to New Orleans and help their city. I appreciated the kind words, but didn’t feel like I had given up or lost a thing. Sure, I was giving, but I was also receiving. I worked during the day, took some educational fieldtrips in the afternoon, and played at night. I helped out an overworked and understaffed organization, but I lived in the French Quarter and ate like a King. This spring break was probably the best one I have ever had. I am not exaggerating, and I am not forgetting my appearance on Girls Gone Wild – Cancun 1993 (out of print, regrettably) (and I'm kidding). Coming down to the Big Easy was a good call on my part, and I recommend this experience to anyone who is committed to service but still wouldn’t mind having a good time. The UNC Pro Bono Clinic has planted a seed here, and I hope it continues on after the urgency of Katrina fades. There will still be work to do, and this will still be a great place to do it.

For those of you who have waded through this post, here is your Easter Egg:
Pictures From the Ninth Ward
Pictures From the 17th Street Levee Breach
Pictures of the French Quarter and Student Volunteers


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