During the January 2007 winter break, 11 students of the Cardozo Public Interest Law Students Association spent a week volunteering for legal organizations in the Gulf Coast area in a partnership with the Student Hurricane Network. They joined other law students in a nationwide effort to support the rehabilitation of the area legal system and to ensure that those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita receive needed legal assistance. Nine Cardozo students worked at the Mississippi Center for Justice in Biloxi and two at the Innocence Project in New Orleans. Their trip was made possible in part by donations from the Cardozo administration, alumni, and faculty. They reported on their activities through a blog at http://pilsa.org/blog; what follows is a selection of edited entries.
Joya Cohen ’08
This morning, we headed over to the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) in Biloxi. The office we are working at has been set up exclusively for Katrina recovery and is staffed full time by three attorneys. The Mississippi state government was granted funding by the federal government, but that money has not been distributed to residents. The MCJ was interested in learning why this was, and the detective work involved is our current mission.
Biloxi has a large Vietnamese population; after orientation, our group went to a Vietnamese noodle shop for lunch. We left flyers there in Vietnamese about upcoming workshops and programs. After lunch, we finally began our mission: to go door to door in the communities of Biloxi. We were to take a survey to find out about local awareness and participation in FEMA and related agencies.
To get to this area, we drove down to the point of Biloxi. The aftermath was still apparent: homes destroyed, piles of trash that were clearly the emptied contents of entire homes, and FEMA trailer parks. Everyone had an opinion (generally negative) of FEMA. The residents spoke of the problems with their homeowners insurance conflicting with their ability to recover from FEMA, but being insufficient to rebuild. Some were financially devastated and unable to fully recover. Others were getting back on their feet, but at the cost of their savings—money they had put aside for retirement and their kids’ college education. As one woman explained, what they thought they needed, they learned they could live without.
Daniel Forman ’08
We reached the last house on the street and knocked on the door. As we turned around, we saw, across the street, a man rushing out of his house in our direction. He brusquely asked, “What are you doing over there?” I informed him that we were taking a survey. He then launched into a tirade about the owner of the house on whose door we just knocked. We asked if the man would like to take our survey and let him vent for a few more minutes, thanked him, and continued on our way.
I am a student in Cardozo’s Mediation Clinic. In the early stages of our training, we learned how important it is in dispute resolution that a party be given time and space to vent, which our survey process does. Our job is to listen. I think a greater mediation project and facilitative dialogue, run by an organization like the MCJ, would help to mend some of the damage caused by the bumpy recovery efforts in the community.
Mike Kleinman ’09
Today we spoke with William Tanzy,* a young man who currently lives in a trailer with his grandparents on theirproperty in Gulfport, just steps from their hurricane-damaged home. The Tanzys were denied both FEMA aid and the Mississippi Phase I Homeowner’s Grant. William sleeps on the cramped couch of the one-bedroom trailer.
The Tanzys have now been in their trailer for almost a year and a half while rebuilding their home. They have made a lot of progress, rebuilding the roof and the interior, and purchasing furniture. Although frustrated, William says that his grandmother keeps the family motivated, encouraging them to go forward. William is 22 years old. He is working, caring for his grandparents, and learning the ins and outs of rebuilding a home.
Finally, we gave the Tanzys flyers directing them to the Center for Justice, as it may be possible for them to appeal the denial of their grant application or to partake in the Phase II allocation.
* Names changed to protect identities.
MONDAY: NEW ORLEANS
Brian Baum ’08 and Laura Barandes ’08
Today was a start. We met with the Orleans Parish evidence clerk and worked out a plan of action with the Orleans Innocence Project people, whose kindness and enthusiasm is infectious. We ate a fantastic breakfast and then drafted an evidence search memo, search affidavits, etc. It’s all part of the long struggle to determine the existence of something—anything —that could emerge from the flooded basements of this city’s criminalcourthouse and free an innocent man.
The city is beautiful and rotted. The colors are vibrant, the mold is deep, and the people move with a slow ease. The public schools never functioned properly before the hurricane, and it’s no different now. Many of the cops wear jumpsuits—people stay out of their way. The French Quarter is clean, Canal Street is clean, and the surrounding streets have man-sized potholes. They say it was always like this. There is a Super-Wal-Mart with its own McDonald’s, dialysis station, and hair salon. There are undamaged buildings in the heart of the city that remain shuttered. “For Sale” signs abound. It is beautiful, empty, and sad.
TUESDAY: NEW ORLEANS
Brian Baum and Laura Barandes
The coroner’s forensic lab is a flooded wreck—its investigators now work out of a small building sandwiched between shotgun shacks with moss growing out of their eaves. The police department’s central evidence and property division finds itself housed in a small trailer on the abandoned lot of what was once a truck weigh station.
WEDNESDAY: NEW ORLEANS
Brian Baum and Laura Barandes
Also yesterday, the head of the Orleans Parish public defenders unit was jailed on contempt charges when no one from his office showed up in a juvenile courtroom. Apparently, the lawyer who was supposed to be there had to juggle four courts simultaneously. That didn’t seem to matter to the judge, who left the courthouse, drove over to the defenders’ offices, sent a sheriff’s deputy inside to find the chief defender, and after bringing the fellow back to court, sentenced him to 36 days in jail. After he’d been in lockup several hours, a higher court stayed the order.
This city’s judicial system needs a massive infusion of funds and expertise to sift through the literally hundreds of boxes of unmarked and corroded evidence, not just for post-conviction exoneration cases, but also those cases where people are being held awaiting trial while the evidence of the crimes for which they are charged has not been found. But that’s a whole other issue.
THURSDAY: NEW ORLEANS
Brian Baum and Laura Barandes
Since January 1, there have been more murders in New Orleans than there are days in this new year. Leaving the D.A.’s office, we waded into a crowded protest outside city hall. Anderson Cooper was standing next to us. An old white lady in pearls stood alongside a young mother whose T-shirt proclaimed her residency in the lower 9th ward. A sign demanding the National Guard leave Iraq and enter New Orleans fought for airspace with another advocating the payment of loans to small businesses.
Locals give different estimates for how long it will take to rebuild the city, anywhere from one to several decades. But uniformly, however expert or amateur the prognosis, it always ends with the resigned sigh “if ever.”
We see this in our search for DNA evidence. One day the evidence that sits unaccounted for will be itemized. One day the various fiefs and agencies will coordinate their tasks and centralize their databases. One day they all might even have databases. But when and to what degree such rehabilitation and modernization of this decrepit system will ever take place, can today be answered with only “if ever.”
The food and music down here are fantastic, and the people are so friendly. To see how they live breaks my heart.
Cardozo Gulf Coast volunteers were recognized on April 30, when the Student Hurricane Network received the New York State Bar Association President’s Pro Bono Service Award. Alisha Williams ’09, Erin Pollack ’09, and Daniel Forman ’08 attended the award ceremony in Albany and are shown here with NYSBA President Mark H. Alcott. Other Cardozo award recipients, including the five additional students who volunteered in New Orleans over spring break, were Katrina Goodwin ’08, Amy Kapoor ’09, Julia Davis ’09, Michael Kleinman ’09, Joya Cohen ’08, Erin Pollack ’09, Laura Barandes ’08, Brian Baum ’08, Lena Katsnelson ’09, Katherine Hwang ’09, Suyeon Kim ’07, Choya Washington ’07, Michael Akerly ’09, and Adam Shane ’09.