Saturday, January 28, 2006

Katrina again, lest we forget

Lawyers from around the country have responded with their time and money to help victims of the disastrous Hurricane Katrina. There are thousands of horror stories from survivors,and there is an endless supply of hardship in need of relief. I call your attention to this recent story from The American Lawyer in the hope that we can all keep our eyes on this ball until the game is over, which by all accounts will be no time soon. Please read the entire story to get a much more complete picture of the range of pro bono services being offered by law firms far and wide.

On a sunny day in late November, Marisa Katz drives east from downtown New Orleans to Chalmatte, one of the areas most ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Houses stand forlornly along the road, their windows broken and insides gutted. Gas stations and stores are boarded up. There are no pedestrians in sight.

Katz, a 28-year-old attorney with New Orleans Legal Assistance (NOLAC), pulls into the edge of a shopping center next to a large white tent, one of the disaster relief centers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She walks through the tent door past a pair of swaggering men in military fatigues. They are members of Blackwater USA, a private security contractor known for its work in Iraq, who have been hired to guard FEMA staff. Yet the people who trudge into the center are hardly threatening as they wait for hours to fill out applications for trailers and financial aid.

Wedged between groups offering Medicaid and insurance information, Katz and her NOLAC colleagues take four-hour shifts, answering questions and signing up clients who can't afford a lawyer. A woman stops by whose mortgage company had dropped her flood insurance coverage. An elderly couple asks if they should continue paying their mortgage since they won't be rebuilding their house.

"Being part of Legal Assistance has been psychologically helpful," Katz tells the reporter accompanying her. She recalls talking to a young man who found his parents drowned in their attic. "There are a million stories like that," she says.

The primary legal aid group in New Orleans, NOLAC provides a lifeline for the legions of hurricane victims now being cut a raw deal by landlords and insurance companies. NOLAC lawyers are especially sensitive because they, too, have been devastated by the storm. Seventy-five percent of the group's employees lost their houses, and many had to leave the city, reducing the number of staff attorneys from 30 to 23.

"When you've lost your own home, it's hard to think straight," says Mark Moreau, a 28-year veteran-and co-executive director-of NOLAC. Moreau, whose house was engulfed in a seven-foot wall of water, is living with relatives. "It's so hard to get things done without computers and e-mail and support staff and with the courts being closed," he says.

The group also lost its Chalmatte outpost in the storm, and did not return to the site of the wreckage until early December. Wearing masks, Katz, Moreau, and two other staffers slogged through thick mud up to their second-floor office to find the ceilings and one wall caved in. They were able to salvage a few papers among the moldy files.

Founded in 1967, NOLAC receives most of its $3.3 million annual funding from Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit established by Congress to give poor people access to lawyers. Before Katrina hit, NOLAC had 3,000 cases, ranging from housing and workplace disputes to domestic violence cases and child custody battles. Their clients have now scattered around the country, along with witnesses and opposing attorneys, so most of these matters are on hold indefinitely.


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