Spread a Spirit of Service – 15 Years After Katrina

Early one foggy fall morning in 2005 an attorney at the Mississippi Center for Justice walked up to the entrance of the brick office in Biloxi and saw to his surprise a group of young people apparently waiting for him at the door. “Hello, and who are you?” he asked. “We’re the Student Hurricane Network,” said one. “Put us to work.” This marked the beginning of a multi-year mass mobilization of thousands of volunteer students and clinical legal programs at law schools across the nation who assisted clients, researched legal issues, and carried out field studies and legal clinics across the Gulf Coast region.


Meanwhile, hundreds of attorneys from scores of national law firms stepped up to offer MCJ and its clients extensive pro bono service. Over the next five years, they assisted storm victims with FEMA, insurance, disaster grant, title clearing, and contractor fraud claims. These firms also provided powerful research and advocacy support to MCJ’s affordable housing, community development, and environmental justice initiatives. All told, their volunteer hours exceeded $20 million in free legal support. Together, these brigades of lawyers and students amounted to the largest influx of volunteer legal support in Mississippi since the civil rights movement.


Further strength to advocate for an equitable disaster recovery came from the many public interest law firms who pitched in with legal clinics, class action litigation, and public advocacy, beginning with MCJ’s national affiliate, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Legal and policy advocates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the National Fair Housing Alliance, Oxfam America, and many others provided crucial insights, training, and connections.


Katrina was a call of conscience answered by the legal profession but also a time of personal transformation. Senior partners and first year law students alike told us they were profoundly affected by the experience, that it helped to put their lives in perspective and to realize how much this nation needed to do to overcome the legacy of racism and poverty. One testament to the power of this public service experience came from former board member George Riley, who led an initiative by his firm, O’Melveny and Myers, to pursue contractors who cheated homeowners out of their insurance or federal grant funds intended to rebuild their homes. Here is George’s tribute to his time spent with MCJ while on sabbatical from his firm.


To continue the spirit of service exhibited by these extraordinary volunteers, MCJ attorneys have answered the call when new disasters have ravaged communities in the United States, such as Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and overseas, where Japan experienced a hurricane, tsunami, and nuclear accident. Please see the reading list for the Meiji University Law School article on the role of lawyers in disaster response. For an extended discussion of disaster law, please see the presentation to Puerto Rican advocates at this link.