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Helping Katrina victims

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Pasadena lawyer Julianne Lapham will long remember what she saw during two post-Katrina pro bono stints in Mississippi: A landscape of dead plants and trees. Piles of trash. Stairs to nowhere. Flies. Rifle-ready military personnel demanding picture I.D.s and statements of intention. Long lines of the displaced.

Yolanda Jackson
Jackson

Yolanda Jackson, an American Canyon attorney, saw the devastation in New Orleans, where she served as a discussion leader during a rebuilding conference: “It looked like a Third World country.” Buildings lifted off their foundations and sent scooting across the flooded street. Houses marked in red with signs reading, “No dead bodies found,” “No animals found,” “One dead body inside house.” Stench.

(Click to Enlarge)

Karen Lash, former associate dean of the University of Southern California law school and now vice president of programs for Equal Justice Works in Washington, has made several trips to Mississippi since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, and she is outraged that so little has been done to help the victims and repair the damage. Driving along the Missis-sippi coast in mid-December, she saw “communities and cities wiped out . . . miles and miles of debris . . . mountains of ruins that were people’s homes . . . tent cities.” “The promises of resources were believed,” Lash says angrily. “Three-and-a-half months later, people should have answers.” Instead, she says, tens of thousands of people are still homeless, waiting in endless lines for trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), living in tents, unsure whether they will get assistance checks. Lash is especially upset that Mississippi, in particular, is being ignored. “I’m glad there is still some concern and coverage for what is happening in New Orleans,” she says. “I’m deeply troubled by the relative neglect of the rest of the region.”

When Lash first went to Mississippi intending to give people legal advice, she was shocked to see that there was no organized effort to provide food, shelter and water. Legal advice was put on the back burner and she joined the effort to help victims survive from day to day. At one point, she and a colleague hopped in an abandoned ice truck and started handing out ice. At other times, she helped organize food programs or joined in the search for bleach to kill bacteria from raw sewage and stop the spread of mold.

California attorneys have reacted to the hurricane devastation in myriad generous ways. They’re donating hundreds of thousands of dollars individually and through their firms. Through the ABA Web site and elsewhere, attorneys have offered office space and supplies. “We envisioned what it would be like if it happened to us,” said San Diego attorney Gary Moyer, who is providing free office space to a flooded-out Louisiana lawyer who also has a California bar license. “What if my cash flow got cut off just like that? What if I had no access to my papers? It must be devastating,” says Moyer. “But for the grace of God, it could be us.”

Shortly after Katrina hit, 45 attorneys from San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster researched, wrote and published the “Helping Handbook,” a 185-page compendium of information on FEMA assistance, housing, insurance, telephone and Internet service, mental health resources and other issues aimed at individuals, families and businesses in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Thelen Reid & Priest created, among other things, a fund targeted at restoration of the Gulfport, Miss., school district. Kirkland and Ellis sent lawyers to Mississippi. More than 900 attorneys and law students from the Los Angeles area responded when leaders of the Los Angeles Pro Bono Council put out a call for volunteers to help evacuees who ended up in Southern California.

Like other lawyers going to Mississippi, the AARP Foundation’s Lapham received a waiver so that she can practice there during the emergency. Traveling to FEMA disaster recovery centers throughout the state, she found herself in a variety of roles, from simply providing a sympathetic ear to making phone calls with the power of the word “attorney” behind them to seeing Mississippi’s version of small claims court in action. At one place, people waited two hours to talk to her.

At the beginning, she was just giving what she calls “common sense” advice about preparing for insurance adjusters: “Make a list of everything you remember you had. Keep a log of who you talked to. Don’t sign anything if you don’t feel comfortable. Keep really good records.” Some people just needed reassurance or someone to confirm to them that they did not have to sign an insurance agreement immediately.

On her second trip, the majority of the questions Lapham got, however, concerned landlord-tenant relations. As contractors come to rebuild, landlords are finding that outsiders will pay three or four times what their tenants paid for rent. Eviction notices are proliferating, even for the stalwarts who never left and did some of the repairs themselves on their rental apartments or homes. “What does this mean?” Lapham was repeatedly asked. She had to tell them that Mississippi law does allow them to be evicted. Others wanted to know if they still had to pay rent for places with leaky roofs, mold on the walls and broken windows. As long as they were living there, Lapham had to tell them, they had to pay rent. She also got an education when she attended a session in Mississippi’s Court of Justice, the state’s version of small claims court, and found that while attorneys are allowed (unlike in California), judges need no legal experience. Until recently, Lapham said, they didn’t even need a high school education. Lawyers “try to make these legal arguments and the judge has no idea what you’re talking about,” Lapham says.

A number of people she met were illiterate, and she spent time just reading their insurance policies to them. “How can someone sign an insurance settlement agreement which is meant to replace their lost personal and real property when they cannot even read their policy,” she laments. “Who is going to protect these people from being taken advantage of at their most vulnerable moment?”

“Unfortunately, they still need shelter, but we’re definitely entering the phase where lawyers are needed,” says Lash. The Mississippi Center for Justice’s Web site confirms that need: “In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi Gulf Coast residents, organizations and small businesses have immediate and long-term legal needs, including:

  • A grandmother now caring for her grandchildren and needing legal guardianship;
  • Children who have special needs getting access to essential services in their new school;
  • Insurance being denied because companies deem damages caused by flood not hurricane;
  • Families losing their homes because they can’t access their bank accounts;
  • Veterans not getting their medical and other benefits;
  • Elderly homeowners being scammed by predatory lenders;
  • Families needing to file for bankruptcy protection;
  • Newly disabled individuals who need help getting SSI benefits;
  • Immigrant workers displaced from jobs at poultry plants and casino hotels.”

Morgan and Lewis, which has four offices in California, is readying an army of pro bono attorneys to help in the area of insurance recovery because the firm has a policyholder side insurance recovery practice. Amanda Smith, pro bono counsel for Morgan Lewis, says the firm will likely broaden its usual pro bono eligibility requirements in some cases so that more people can be helped. “The firm recognizes that this is a disaster of extraordinary proportions and we need to respond,” she says. The process is complicated by the fact that many people lost their proof of insurance and documents such as birth certificates and passports that identify who they are. It also is complicated by the fact that the Louisiana justice system is based on the Napoleonic Code rather than English common law.

Both Lapham and Jackson, the American Canyon mediator who took part in a rebuilding conference in New Orleans, say that despite the devastation and anguish, the hurricane victims they met retain their famous Southern graciousness and optimism. As television and newspaper coverage of their predicament wanes, face-to-face encounters of outsiders wanting to help is what’s making a difference. “They know people care,” says Jackson.

PHOTO CAPTION: Julianne Lapham, a lawyer from Pasadena (in AARP t-shirt), volunteered her legal expertise to help victims of the Gulf Coast hurricanes in Mississippi.  PHOTO BY J.D. SCHWALM, deepsouthimages.com

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