Monday, December 10, 2007
A major difficulty in assisting Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer residents in the Gulf Coast has been a lack of understanding the issues, legal or otherwise, that these residents face. During the week of March 12-16th, 2007, over 150 law students from 18 law schools interviewed residents from 557 trailers in New Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, as well as residents living in the Renaissance Trailer Park outside of Baton Rouge . This project was fully coordinated and carried out by law student volunteers through the Student Hurricane Network (SHN).
Over the course of the survey, residents cited various obstacles that prevented them from moving out of their trailers including an inability to fix their home, having no place to stay other than the trailer, and issues involving mental health, physical health, Medicare, disabilities, and crime. Nearly half of the residents reported major problems with their FEMA trailer including leaks, health problems, mold, cockroaches, and lack of handicap access. Most trailer residents were homeowners who were living in trailers situated on their own land. Although almost half of the trailer residents were employed, most could not afford the rising post-Katrina rents and/or gain access to adequate funds for rebuilding.
Today, more than 8 months later, FEMA trailer residents still struggle to meet their basic needs such as permanent housing, transportation, healthcare, and legal services. The goal of this report is to share the analysis of the data gathered in March 2007 with the hopes of providing a catalyst for future volunteerism and other activities aimed at working with FEMA trailer residents, a group that is often too marginalized and largely ignored post-Katrina.
Stay tuned for the full report . . .
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Some new issues facing New Orleans (which aren't, in fact, new, they're just on CNN now) include the Jena 6 case and battles with the insurance industry over distribution of funds to impacted residents. These two issues highlight the catastrophe that lingers at the intersection of racial discrimination and bad business practice (both in the legal and insurance communities), and hopefully will remain in the public spotlight so that people will start to take notice and speak out. If you are interested to learn more, the Times-Picayune (www.nola.com) offers a wealth of information about what is going on in the Gulf Coast, and from a local perspective. We are also hoping to have events on campus to highlight these issues and keep our community informed and aware.
Please also keep a lookout for announcements about on-campus events such as panel discussions, documentaries, and fundraising events. We always hope for a good turnout and your support is much needed and appreciated!!
Thank you to everyone who supported us last year, and please join us again this year in our efforts to support the people of the Gulf Coast.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
To that end, HHR has begun the fundraising process, is working with the Pro Bono Project in New Orleans and planning panels to continue the conscious raising work that we started last year.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
It has taken me over a week to even attempt to articulate the very thoughts and feelings that have consumed me in the wake of our trip. As I reflect on what was probably one of the most moving and influential weeks of my life, I'm left with so much to say I can hardly speak.
At the outset of this trip, I think we all experienced a flurry of emotions....excitement at the prospect of exploring a new city....eagerness to get to work, speak with residents, hear their stories....hope that we would actually make a difference....and, fear that we would fail to change much of anything or be ill-received by residents.
The week, of course, offered no respite from the emotional turbulence. From gazing across the wreckage of the Lower Ninth Ward to hearing heart-wrenching tales of loss and tragedy, I was often overcome by feelings of sorrow, guilt, and helplessness. And yet somehow, as I look back on last week, I am filled with so much gratitude, inspiration, and hope.
Many of us have probably asked ourselves at some point: Was it all worth it? Did we even make a difference? Even aside from the SHN project, I think we accomplished something major last week. At a very basic level, we did this by simply being there and lending an attentive ear. So many people just wanted to vent and be heard. We can all recall those residents who sat with us for over an hour, recounting their stories and talking our ears off. When virtually marginalized by their governments, it’s understandable why they so desperately needed to hear that others have not forgotten and still care. Numerous times, we received heartfelt expressions of gratitude for just being there and doing whatever we could to help. I was almost loath to receive such thanks since I felt relatively helpless up against the grand bureaucratic scheme holding the keys to their recovery. Yet their deep appreciation likely stems from a sense of neglect and desertion, which renders the presence of volunteers in the area so vital. I cling to the hope that our presence, in some measure, helped to fill that void.
Another thing that inspires me is the passion of these extraordinary people. Although bruised and tattered, their spirits are certainly not broken. The city is still brimming with personality and heart – people continue to wave and smile at random passersby; the sweet sounds of local brass bands reverberate through the evening air; even mardi gras beads can be seen adorning tombstones and the entrance to abandoned homes, left as signs of life at otherwise inert sites. Amid the devastation and immeasurable sadness lies unrestrained faith and pride. The residents are anxious to rebuild and restore
Their strength and gratitude instill me with hope that our work was and continues to be, at least, some small step towards the rebirth of this great, beloved city.
** To the people of
Sunday, March 18, 2007
I've often wondered during this week if it wouldn't be easier to just pick up and rebuild elsewhere, start fresh. But after speaking with the residents of New Orleans, I quickly discovered that the sense of community here is strong, and the sense of history remains firmly rooted. Leaving it is unthinkable. One woman told us that the neighborhood in which her trailer stood was where she had played with her friends as a kid, and now her children were playing in that same neighborhood with her friends' children. "You think I'm gonna pick up and take my children away?" she said incredulously.
Another man told us that, in New Orleans, people will offer you a hot meal and want to get to know you. But if you refuse, "aw man, that's it for you, man, we don't trust people who aren't neighborly." And another man told us that the way he was getting through the aftermath of the storm was by working on his friends' houses in exchange for hot dinners. "This lady over here? Man she lost everything. So I say to her I'll work on her house, you know, cause I did some construction before the storm? And no worry about money. If she has some leftovers or whatever, though, I'll take those."
The people of New Orleans will not leave their homes and their communities. And they shouldn't be asked to. It is the sense of community that made this city what it was before the storm, and it is the sense of community that is keeping it together in the aftermath. They rebuild on devastated lots and live in moldy trailers because they know that some day their neighborhood will be filled with their friends and family again.
Lucy, a grandmother raising her two young grandchildren in a FEMA trailer, put it like this:
"You see that corner over there with the light? Before the storm, I would drive to get the kids from school and I would sit at that damn light and wait and wait. The traffic was so bad. And I'd curse at all the cars in my way to get my grandbabies. But when I got back after the storm, I could drive straight through without hardly stopping. There were no cars and no traffic. I wasn't happy about it, though, I missed the cars, you know? It's taken a long time, and now I see a few more every week. And more are coming. I don't curse sitting at that light anymore, I just smile and drive. 'Cause, baby, this place ain't nothing without it's people."
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Then Coach (he never did give his proper name) began to tell us the story of his neighborhood. "Spike Lee, he ain't got nothing on me, baby" he'd say after a particularly graphic detail. "I saw people droppin' babies in the water 'cause they didn't know what else to do. Bro, we had a bad time down here."
Coach shared his house with his elderly mother. Both lived on opposite sides of the second floor, above their garage. As the storm approached, he suggested to his mother that they leave the city (Coach was fortunate to have two cars), but his mother did not want to leave. They weathered the wind and rain, and though the house shook, it suffered little damage. After Katrina passed, he and his mother sat on the front porch, surveying the neighborhood and Coach saw water running down their street from around the corner. He assumed that a water line had broken and thought little of it as the water simply ran down into the storm drain in front of his house. After several hours, the drain stopped taking in water and slowly it filled the street and reached the sidewalk. Heavy rain often flooded the street, so Coach was not overly concerned. But when water reached his garage doors, he began to think something more serious had happened. Soon the water had risen several steps up towards his porch and when one of his students passed by in a boat, he called him over. By this time, the water was chest deep and still rising. Coach took the boat over to a nearby lot where another boat was stored and waded up to it. After hotwiring the boat, he began to travel through the neighborhood, checking in with people to see how they were fairing. Quickly, it became clear that everyone needed to evacuate, so Coach organized the shuttling of the remaining neighbors over to the highway overpass and from there to the Superdome. "Some folks refused to come," he said, shaking his head, "they wouldn't leave they house and they gone now. I went back twice to ask, but they wouldn't leave." He added that his neighbors either drowned or were forced to evacuate when the National Guard came for him. His next door neighbor's son was sick at the time of the hurricane and rescuers didn't reach him in time to save him. Coach eventually made it to the Superdome himself. (His neighbor, Mr. Singleton, described that experience starkly, saying "Only two people know what happened in there, the folks who was in there, and the Good Lord.") His mother was ill and through a connection, Coach was able to get her up into the offices at the Superdome and thus to a safe shower and some chairs for her to sleep on. After three days, they evacuated to Texas and eventually to Chicago. Even though she is a life-long New Orleans resident, his mother has since remained in Chicago because Coach does not believe the city is safe enough for her to return. The lack of services and public transportation means she would be forced to remain in the house all day and he could not let her spend her days cooped up alone.
After inviting us into his renovated home, and proudly displaying the group of volunteers from Dartmouth College who helped gut his destroyed downstairs, he treated us to more stories, drinks, and photos of the storm and its aftermath. He left us with a book of Katrina photos, some directions and information about the best neighborhoods to visit, and the request that we promise to stop by and say hello next time we are in the neighborhood.
When he opened the door, he immediately invited us in to talk. His niece was asleep on the couch and there was barely enough room for the two of us and Michael to fit in the small central room. He was a large man, over six feet tall and 300 pounds, and the trailers are only seven feet wide and barely that high. As we began to ask our standard questions, he explained that he owned the house behind his trailer and had evacuated before the storm, caravanning up to Baton Rouge with his sister and her family. As they bounced from Louisiana to Tennessee to Atlanta, they had no word of their neighborhood, nor their houses (his sister lives next door) until, at a hotel in Atlanta, they saw them on the news, under six feet of water.
When Michael finally returned to his neighborhood, where he’s owned his home for 18 years, the devastation was greater than he had imagined. While he’s lived in his trailer for over a year, on the yard of his own house, he doesn’t feel capable of going in side his destroyed home. The burden is too great, he says, and he gets emotional thinking about his whole life, trapped under that water for all those weeks. He wants to rebuild, but his homeowners insurance didn’t cover any of the water damage and he had no flood insurance because his house sits above sea level. Now he waits on the massive government bureaucracy to sort through his application, weigh its merits, and, hopefully, grant him the money to begin to rebuild his life.
Even living in the trailer, he doesn’t feel safe in his neighborhood. Neighbors have not returned and the streets are dark and empty at night. In order to visit friends, he walks across the city (buses are worthless, he says, as they rarely run and only cover a small portion of the routes they once did). He mentions incidents of police harassment as he walks through the city, yet feels he has no choice but to endure it as the price of getting some sense of his lost community.
As we left, he urged us to come back and visit his neighbor, an older Vietnamese man. He didn’t leave during the storm, Michael says, he just sat on his porch to protect his house and keep an eye on the neighborhood. As the water came into the house, he continued to wait, hoping it would go down. When it got to chest height, he decided it was time to evacuate and with no boat and no one left in the neighborhood, he swam over a mile, through the streets to a highway overpass. He slept there for two more nights before being rescued. He’s has returned to his house, but he’s in a bad way, Michael relates, his head isn’t right any more, not after that. We hope to return to meet him in the coming days.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
I want to talk about Coach. I met Coach today while we were driving through Midtown. We waved to him from the sedan and he flagged us down. We pulled the car over and the four of us got out and met Coach and several of his neighbors. The first thing Coach asked us was why we we were only talking to people living in FEMA trailers. I responded to him that we had been assigned the FEMA Trailer Survey Prjoect and explained the idea behind the project. Coach looked at the four of us and said that he was not living in a trailer and that folks not living in the trailers needed held just as much as those who had received FEMA trailers.
We spoke with Coach for a while and with several of his neighbors. They told us how the city of New Orleans made it so difficult for them as to where they could place their FEMA trailers that many of the folks in the neighborhood simply gave up. The trailers could not be placed under power lines, or phone lines, or be touching any part of the sidewalk. One of his neighbors was lucky enough to have received a FEMA trailer but they were never given a key. FEMA never answered any of their requests for the key, so the trailer is sitting empty in the driveway of a now abandoned house.
After some time had passed Coach began to open up more about his experience. He invited us into his house and offered us root beer and dinner and Coach gave me my first Sasparilla. He asked us if we had seen Spike Lee's documentary and proceeded to tell us that Spike Lee had nothing on him. After listening to Coach recant his story to us I realized that watching a documentary and sitting in person with someone who experienced this catastrophe and is still experienceing this catastrophe are totally different experiences.
He told us how the day after Katrina had made landfall that he and his mother were sitting outside cleaning up and that for the most part their neighborhood and home had weathered the storm very well. More importantly, one of the reasons they chose not to evacuate is because they had always been told that Midtown had too high of an elevation to be flooded out by more than three feet even if a Levee were to breach. Furthermore, most people in their neighborhood did not have flood insurance because in short they has been told they would never need flood insurance. A full 24 hours after the storm had passed Coach noticed that water was starting to flow down the street. After an hour the water had risen to the curb level. He and his mother figured that maybe a water pipe had ruptured. Or worse case scenario if the 17th street levee had breached than maybe the water would rise to about three feet or so and they decided to wait. The water rose above the level of the street up to the first step leading to the front door. Then it rose to the second step, and then the third step, and then the fourth step. Coach realized the water was not going to stop rising at three feet.
Coach was able to find a boat that had washed out from a nearby storage facility and for hours he waded in six feet of water rescuing as many of his neighbors as possible and pushing the boat to the bridge so these people could walk to the Superdome. After several hours he was able to hotwire the boat engine and continued to rescue as many people as he could and who were willing. I could see the pain in his eyes as over and over again all he could say to me to express how unbelievable the situation was by saying, "It was bad. It was bad. I can't tell you how bad it was." He gave us a book that was published by the Times-Picayune, the largest local newspaper for the New Orleans Metro area, that had hundreds of photographs of the devastation. He was pointing out pictures of friends and relatives that were in these published photos. Coach asked us that we bring the book back to San Francisco and show it to as many people as we can and to tell his story and let people know that New Orleans needs help now more than ever.
As a fellow member of our group stated earlier tonight in conversation, this is our duty as Americans and as Humans to be here in New Orelans, right now, and in the future. As far as I have seen in the last three days, this event has really shined a light on the absolute best of humanity and the absolute worst. We cannot forget about these people and this city just because it has been a year, or a year and a half or two years. We cannot ever forget until we can bring this community back to be bigger and better than it ever was before Katrina. To anyone who may read this blog, I may not be the most eloquent or grammatically correct writer, but please see through to the deeper level I am trying to express. New Orleans and its people are a part of us as Americans and as fellow human beings and we cannot just walk away or forget their plight.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
One man we talked to was living with his son and working a job in addition to rebuilding his home. His wife and other children were living two hours away in Baton Rouge because FEMA had given them a trailer too small to fit their large family. So he travels to be with them on weekends and returns to his trailer to work during the week. After speaking to us briefly about the foot of mold under his bed and FEMA's failure to respond to his calls, he shifted to a subject clearly more pressing on his mind. He poured his heart out to us about his concern for his children and what kind of people they would be without their father there when they needed him. He spoke of a desire to be there to teach them about taking care of themselves and their family, going to school, staying out of trouble, being respectful of others, and working hard for the things they want. He spoke of his fear that other people perceived his children as "bad" or "dangerous" because they were from New Orleans. He himself had lied about his birth city when asked by people in Baton Rouge. He missed his wife and the daily activities they pursued with their children. But he was hopeful and grateful for what he had, and that his family had survived the storm.
It has been suggested many times in the various media outlets that the people of New Orleans are criminals, looters, and freeloaders. That their problems stem from their race and not from a horrible natural disaster or the horrendous negligence of the government. That they are probably "better off" now that their homes have been washed away. I can tell you without a doubt in my heart that none of this is true. The man we spoke with is one of many people who are hardworking, honest, and hopeful, despite the fact that the events of the past year and the responses of some have given them every reason not to be. The man we spoke to was concerned about keeping his family together, supporting his wife in her grief, and making sure that his children grow up to be good people. He works one job, and then comes home to another as he rebuilds what was lost. He is the American that many talk about wistfully but disregard with the second news cycle.
If I can impress any one thing upon the people who read our blog, it is this: there is despair in this city, there is deep sadness and anger, a sense of loss that no one can understand unless they've lived it, there is a sense of abandonment, and there is profound isolation even in the most crowded of spaces. But there is above all a sense of humor (dry and ironic though it may be), a sense of pride, and a sense of hope that blooms where it could not possibly be expected to grow.
This place has been forgotten. But it is America as I've never seen it before. And it is America with a persistence and pride which brings me to tears.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Today we visited a graveyard. Shells of homes comprised the headstones that dot an open field of green grass and crisscross the abandoned streets where livelihoods were washed away and hopes were bulldozed. A few survivors dwell among the scattered headstones: Rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding. Although one neighborhood may be alive with contractors rebuilding, rebuilding, and rebuilding, another is eerily quiet, with two homes standing rebuilt among a landscape of ruin.
Five hundred and fifty law students descended on these graveyards this week. 150 of us sought to gather the stories of New Orleans' residents seemingly forgotten in their FEMA trailers. Eighteen months after The Storm, the few homeowners who have been awarded a grant to rebuild from The Road Home project still await the elusive money. The Road Home project allocates billions of dollars pledged by Congress to aid the rebuilding efforts of survivors. Yet, those who qualify are those who owned a home. Those who have historically been left behind -- by segregation and during the evacuation -- continue to be left behind. They are treading water in the waiting pool, with no land to stand on.
Citizens who chose to stay in New Orleans and were later forced to evacuate their rented homes languish in FEMA trailer parks scattered throughout the city under highway overpasses and in other sections of space no one cares to inhabit. Residents of these semi-permanent parks inhabit a space of 250 square feet. Of the 100,000+ people who may qualify and have applied to the Road Home, only 3,000 have been repaid for their loss.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Things changed on the other side of Tulane. We began to ride by adandoned homes, some with their windows boarded, some with water-damaged rubble on their sidewalks. Eerily, there were few people on the streets, almost like a ghostown. As we continued on our ride, we began to see the worst destruction. Few homes were rebuilt and most were deserted. At one point, we decided to take a photograph of a brown-colored watermark on a white garage to capture how high the water had actually risen. Simultaneoulsy we felt the same thing: that were were tourists sighseeing the effects of the worst natural catastrophe in the U.S. that affected the lives of hundreds of people. Then two of us decided to enter a deserted home whose front door was open. Each of us immediately noticed the two wooden ceiling fans, probably located in what was once a dining room, that were oddly bent out of shape like a wet noodle probably because of water damage. Later, we both discussed how awkward it was to step inside the home of a family who once depended on it for their security and comfort, who spent their money to buy it and develop it over the years.
We biked passed the spot where the 17th street levee breached, and looking at the layout, there was no question in our minds that any break in the levee would pose a substantial risk of flooding. The water lines were phenomenally high, and it was hard to imagine people struggling to find safety, and not being able to even find it on their roofs. Two people we met later in the day were telling stories us from the hurricane and the aftermath. This woman was telling us how a friend of hers was stranded on her rooftop for two days, and when she was finally rescued, she was dropped off on the highway. Her friend described US Army treating citizens like dogs, chucking water and food at them without stopping to see if they needed help.
These people also discussed with us how rough it has been in New Orleans in the last year and a half since the Hurricane. Our male friend knew 46 people who have committed suicide since then, and our female friend said that the Hurricane was really hard on her 12 year old son, who is currently on suicide watch. In case our first impressions and exploration casted any doubt in our minds that this city is really decaying, their stories really brought back the human element, and made us realize that even if some houses are rebuilt, people are still mentally affected and displaced from the Hurricane. Our friends said it best: they feel forgotten about.
Friday, March 9, 2007
But, how will I react to the stories I hear, the sites I see, and the residents I meet in New Orleans? Will I be angry, sad, hopeful for things to come, disappointed, or amazed at the resilience New Orleaneans have demonstrated? I suspect that I'll experience each. I've been to third-world countries before, but I've never been to an area where lives have forever changed because of a major natural disaster. I generally associate economics, politics, education, and natural resources as the reasons for an area's financial and social demise - not a hurricane.
In the days after September 11, 2001 I traveled to dowtown Manhattan where the Twin Towers were previously located. I was very familiar with the area pre-9/11 since I grew up in Queens, traveled often the city when I was younger, and attended college a few blocks away. If you can imagine walking down a street and not recognize many of the reference points you knew for so long then you can imagine what I experienced. I believe that is precisely how New Orleaneans felt immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Unlike the downtown area of Manhattan that was mostly occupied by businesses, however, families lived in most of the areas devasted by Katrina.
Despite the devastation that affected so many, I remain hopeful that New Orleaneans, through their own efforts and the assistance of others, will rebuild their communities to regain the lives they once knew.
It's wonderful to have the opportunity to work with such a dedicated group of students who truly want to make a difference by helping those in need.
To the journey!
I was also struck by the incredible generosity of the people who contributed to our trip and to the people we hope to befriend and help down in New Orleans. I have never seen such an outpouring of care.
I can't predict what this week will be like, but I'm confident that the combined earnestness and goodwill of the people in this group will be sufficient to make something real happen. And I'm excited to meet the other students who will be there who feel the same.
Here's to a week of astonishing sadness and anger, but also to the great hope of what people can do for each other.
Monday, March 5, 2007
The past two months have been a real whirlwind for Hastings Hurricane Relief. We began only three months ago, in December, and have raised about $3500 since then. In a frenzy of activity, we raised money while providing educational opportunities. At our first event, fellow students proved that they care about pro bono activities created by students. The next week was more educational; we screened the first act of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and featured a panel of informed and inspiring speakers from Golden Gate University, the Equal Justice Society, the Employment Law Society, and our very own Professor Prince. In-between all of this activity, we called and emailed alumni who might be interested in attending the events. Along with faculty, alumni contributed to the project the most, bringing the total amount of funds available to make this happen to $3500!
As someone who is entirely dependent on student financial aid, I must admit that the generosity of our fellow students, faculty, alumni, and friends have made something possible that otherwise would not be available to me or my fellow HHR members. The group truly appreciates your support, in whatever form it manifests. Simply reading our humble blog supports our efforts by letting us know that the greater community is paying attention to the crisis in the Gulf region and is interested in seeing Hastings students contribute to a solution.
- Rebecca Green
FEMA Survey Project!
"This is an ambitious project in which over 150 students are
going to attempt to interview residents in FEMA trailers all over
New Orleans in order to identify their legal issues. We will
also being trying to connect them to already existing services
that they may not know about.
SUB-PROJECT: One of the secondary goals of this survey project is
to track the conditions of New Orleans through "objective indicators"
(non-functioning stoplights, closed stores, etc). This project
requires more driving, less interviewing, and an interest in plotting
locations on maps.
A lack of information is one of the principal problems behind connecting
people to legal aid and services and developing effective solutions.
I can't tell you how important this project is and how personal it will
be to hear the stories and walk the neighborhoods of people who are still
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
This year HHR will be headed to the Gulf on March 10th and returning the 17th.