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

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Rebirth Got Fire

New Orleans, and our work this week, has been a study in stark contrasts. Tourists bustle in the French Quarter; parts of the city are still silent. We work in a fancy firm conference room on successions for some of New Orleans’ least well-off residents. Colorful yellow flowers bloom in Jackson Square; a yellow waterline mark still runs through houses and roofs in the lower 9th Ward.

When I traveled to New Orleans last year, I saw how much hope and little help existed in the region. Returning a year later, I’ve discovered that the strength of this community is in its resiliency, but the government is not making anything easier. Community residents seem to have come to the conclusion that the government isn’t going to help them.

We’ve worked all week on successions, helping area residents prove they own land, so they can receive government assistance and insurance payments. I’ve been proud of how dedicated my Tar Heel peers are to helping their clients. 1L Amy Dessel refuses to be slowed down by holes in her cases, and has literally been on the phone all day. Justin Flores, also a first year student, has almost finished a succession in a mere 2 days.

In addition to working on successions, supervising attorney (and recent Carolina Law grad) Diane Standaert has allowed us to help on a research project for the Center for Civil Rights, and a consortium of other public policy entities. Land partitioning has adversely affected many lower-income residents of the rural south, and each day several Carolina Law students help Diane mine through the New Orleans Pro Bono Project’s files, looking for further evidence of the problem. To me, this task initially appeared to be overwhelming. However, after sorting through the files, it has been a striking to realize how many of the clients’ stories are similar. It’s frightening to discover that the structure of many states’ laws, not natural disasters, could prevent low-income residents from living on their land.

My favorite part of traveling with the UNC Pro Bono Program is getting to talk to people and interact with the community. Luckily, Diane afforded myself and 1L Ashley Erickson the chance to get out into the community after work yesterday.

We met up with Professor Oscar Barbarin, of the UNC School of Social Work, who took us on a tour of District 6. Professor Barbarin is part of a UNC consortium made up of the School of Social Work, the Planning School, the Law School, and several other University departments that is adopting District 6. Currently plans call for UNC to set up information resource centers in the district, and work on clustering plans.

Professor Barbarin grew up in District 6, and took us on a tour of the area with his sister, Sylvia. Ms. Sylvia is a current resident of the area, and in addition to providing a candid assessment of how the city is progressing, she provided a rich commentary on the culture of the city. The sense of community was palpable in our trip around District 6. However, people are sick of planning. Hopefully the UNC programs will provide constructive help to the area.

I was tremendously bothered by several housing projects we saw that were boarded up. Ms. Sylvia told us buildings hadn’t suffered any damage from Katrina, rather the landlords used the evacuations as an opportunity to buy out their tenants’ leases. Now the landlords want to tear down the projects and develop the properties. With the majority of New Orleans’ residents displaced or in FEMA trailers, it was shocking to see habitable buildings empty.

The New Orleans Pro Bono Project was kind enough to set up a meeting with Judge Zainey of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and Louisiana Civil Court Judge Giarrusso. Yesterday we attended one of the first Katrina insurance trials in state civil court, over which Judge Giarrusso presided.

The trial was something out of a movie; the plaintiff was a 91 year old holocaust survivor from Poland, who ended his testimony by yelling, “America is the greatest country ever, God Bless America.” Yes, the insurance company did look evil.

I was also perplexed how the insurance company was going to get a fair trial. To find 12 people that don’t feel like they have been screwed by an insurance company in this city has to be impossible. A bench trial probably wouldn’t help the insurance company either; all but 2 district civil court judges lost their homes.

Driving back from the 17th Street Canal yesterday, 2L Matt Liles and I discussed how you can see solid improvements in the city. In the 9th ward, you can see a house or two in each block where people have moved back in. It’s not a lot of progress, but it’s something. I don’t know whether to say New Orleans is back or will be back; I guess time will tell.


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