More than a year has passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, and although thousands of volunteers have traveled to the area to provide relief assistance, a tremendous amount of work remains. 18 students from the Washington and Lee University School of Law saw this up close during their spring break when they joined a nationwide relief effort providing legal services and manual labor in New Orleans.
Students were astonished to find that even after all this time much of the cities residential areas remain in ruins and largely uninhabited. Only half of the total population before the storm has returned, and only 20% of the African-American population remains.
"It's really like there are two cities," said Yousri Omar '07, one of the students who joined the effort. "The French Quarter and the business district are fine, but in the lower 9th ward and elsewhere it looks like the day after the storm." Omar noted that the neighborhoods still in need of clean up were inhabited largely by minorities who have not returned to the city, "but how can you expect them to return when their homes and schools still don't have electricity?"
Law students from all three class years participated in the trip. Third year students participating were Kellie Fiedler, Annette Lyn, Beth McKee, Yousri Omar, Houston Stokes, and Mohamed Younis. Second year students participating were Patrick Garry, Diane Meier, Juliette Syn, Sean Whittington, Leslie Williams, and Christen C. Wray. First year students participating were Crystal Doyle, Brad Henson, Jennie Lin, Kate Loudenslagel, Oleg Nudelman, and Meghan Williams.
The trip was organized and sponsored by the Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, with additional funding coming from the Public Interest Law Students Association (PILSA) and the Dean's office. Organizers worked with the Student Hurricane Network (SHN) to place the students with local, state and federal agencies, such as the Juvenile Justice Project of LA, the Alliance for Affordable Energy, and the Katrina Corp/FEMA Mapping survey. The SHN is a national association dedicated to providing long-term assistance to communities affected by Hurricane Katrina and works with law students and administrators from all over the United States to create and coordinate volunteer opportunities for law students in the Gulf Coast.
Omar, who is the editor of the Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, said the idea of a service trip was conceived when the staff of the journal began working with Professor Dorothy Brown and the Lewis Law Center on their spring symposium, which will focus on what the Hurricane Katrina disaster revealed about race and class in America.
"Symposia are great for generating discussions about policy and solutions to big problems, but it can take a long time for this to lead to real action" said Omar. "We wanted to do something for the area that had an immediate impact." Omar hopes the focus on the gulf coast will continue at the University with students participating in long distance research and clinical projects during the year which lead to a service trip in the spring.
The symposium, "Race and Class in the 21st Century through the Lens of Hurricane Katrina" is scheduled for Friday, April 13 at the School of Law and will feature as keynote speaker Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans and president of the National Urban League, as well as famed litigator Richard Scruggs, Esq.
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