Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the rebuilding efforts by churches and disaster relief organizations continue in New Orleans.
Less prominent is the work being done by law students around the country, who are joining forces in the Student Hurricane Network to “bring justice to the Gulf Coast region,” as stated on the Web site, studenthurricanenetwork.org.
The Student Hurricane Network was created to meet the sudden demand for legal aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Its first project, in December 2005, involved students from more than 57 law schools around the country traveling to cities across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. The students helped more than 18 public interest groups with criminal justice issues, housing and insurance, immigrant labor and claims submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
Lauren Standlee, MU’s institutional liaison with the Student Hurricane Network, said a group of five MU students took a trip over winter break to work with civil rights attorneys researching education law. The group put together a project that will be presented to communities in and around New Orleans to help raise awareness about educational issues facing students who were displaced by Katrina.
Sundance Banks, a former Louisiana resident and a member of MU’s chapter of the hurricane network, has been especially vocal in urging citizens of Columbia to get involved in rebuilding New Orleans. Contacting congressional representatives, investing in low-interest hurricane recovery funds, even taking a vacation to New Orleans to invest capital in the community, can help move rebuilding efforts forward, he said.
“There may not be as many people living in New Orleans now as there were pre-Katrina,” he says, “but the majority of people who came home after the hurricane are special — they believe in community and they want to rebuild the city. They would surely do it by themselves if they could, but it’s a huge task. They need our help.”
Banks describes MU’s chapter of the hurricane network as one of the most active in the country, leading national initiatives, helping spread public awareness and organizing public events.
This March, 12 MU law students went to New Orleans, including Standlee and three others who worked at the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice. The students were fluent in Spanish and helped the organization translate the claims and testimonies of immigrant workers. Standlee said that many of the workers brought to New Orleans from Mexico were offered as much as $18 an hour to work on rebuilding projects in New Orleans, only to be left without pay, or without any job at all.
Other MU students worked on projects at the New Orleans Public Defender’s office, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Common Ground, a grassroots organization working to get the ideas and opinions of New Orleans residents to national legislative bodies. Joshua Holmes, the first to bring the Student Hurricane Network to the attention of MU law students, has gone on all of MU’s four trips to New Orleans. During spring break, he worked at the New Orleans public defender’s office, an entity that he noted is “stressed to a great degree” due to the huge amounts of paperwork and criminal cases its staff is handling.
Holmes described the public defender’s office as having a “diminished ability to help the indigent prisoners,” especially after the havoc Katrina wrecked on the city. The public defenders and investigators, whose budgets are typically funded by city parking enforcement efforts, are now severely strained, he said, with no money coming in and not enough people willing to work on criminal cases.
“They really need all the help we can give them,” Holmes said.