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Eulogizing Lawyers

When the insurance company AIG announced it would pay executive bonuses after having already received billions in bailout money, the media asked if Obama was faced with his “Katrina Moment.” Perhaps it’s a good sign that the President wasn’t on vacation during a time of crisis, but if condemning the bonuses were to be considered a Katrina moment, something very sad could be deduced about our feelings towards government: send us to war, cut funding for schools, limit health care to the poor, do what you will; but give away our tax money, and we will get pissed off.

Since 2003 the Mississippi Center for Justice, a public interest law firm, has been securing basic human rights in some otherwise dismal climates: the kinds of places where Katrina moments not only go unnoticed, but tend to happen on a daily basis. One of the Center’s first victories put 50,000 Mississippi residents back onto Medicaid after the State forced them off in a misguided attempt to lower budgets. A year later they helped create the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, a group that stops failing schools from being little more than feeders into the prison system.

During it’s first two years of operation, the Center established itself in areas that desperately needed help. Then, in 2005… well, let’s just say that in 2005 things became slightly more complicated. After more than a hundred thousand people in Mississippi were left homeless from Katrina, the Center was overwhelmed with offers of pro bono assistance from lawyers around the country. Those who showed up to help found logistical nightmares. So much of what makes the South unique, that unwillingness to do things by the book (or in this case to even use a book), made allocating relief near impossible. Cottages owned by the poor were typically handed down from generation to generation. With no formal records of ownership, how could someone who lost everything prove it was ever theirs to begin with? Thanks to the Center, over $800,000 in federal assistance has been given to people who would have otherwise been denied funding, and the lawyers aren’t nearly finished. In 2006 they logged 10,000 pro bono hours, and in 2007 contributed 16,000. Multiply those figures by any lawyer’s hourly rate, and the scope of sacrifice becomes even more evident.

Nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA is set to reclaim more than 3,000 trailers occupied by displaced Louisiana residents. The Agency argues that its trailer program was never intended as a permanent solution, and that it’s time for Katrina victims to find other means of housing. Some would contend that FEMA officials have a point, that the statute of limitations on charity has since run out, but chances are anyone making that argument didn’t have all their worldly possessions wiped out by a storm surge. Like it or not, rebuilding the Gulf South will take generations, just as the bailouts to financial institutions will surely be felt by those presently too young to have ever paid a dime in taxes. The nature of a catastrophe is that while it’s effects are essentially irreversible, the best solutions often occur within the long-term.

A number of Louisiana occupants have offered to buy their trailers from FEMA (in many cases for more money than FEMA would be able to resell the trailers for on the open market), but the agency would rather take them back than allow them to stay where they are. Surely FEMA could use the extra cash, so why pass up the opportunity to sell at a higher price? The answer to that question probably has more to do with Southern politics than with FEMA. In a similar case, MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) attempted to take back the cottages it had given to displaced residents, claiming the cottages were in fact mobile homes and therefore unsuitable for permanent residency.

However, it was those who ran the local municipalities, not MEMA, who had a real interest in removing the cottages, hoping in turn to raise property values and dispel images of poverty left over from a four-year-old hurricane. While blighted neighborhoods are an unfortunate side effect of a natural disaster, removing government mobile homes is nothing more than a quick fix that’s unlikely to solve anything.

In the case of the MEMA cottages, the Mississippi Center for Justice sued the municipalities in question, thereby extending the deadline on eviction. Louisiana (even with its increased media attention, due in large part to the suffering of those in New Orleans) lacks a comparable organization to fight on its citizens’ behalf.

Maybe that sort of thing comes with the territory in Louisiana — along with the storms of controversy that have followed FEMA and its role in the state government since 2005. Maybe our attention has shifted to full-time outrage over the financial wreck, our hope being that those who haven’t yet recovered from the last catastrophe will simply go away. Or maybe, and this is a scary thought, our idea of what constitutes a Katrina moment has changed.

PETER ZINN is a graduate student living in Maine. He can be reached at: zinnp@hotmail.com

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