On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria upended the lives of hundreds of thousands of US citizens on the island of Puerto Rico, and altered its environment forever. With winds at 155 miles per hour, the worst hurricane in modern times brought massive damage and immense change to the daily lives of most who live in that Commonwealth.
As a clinical law teacher at the University at Buffalo (UB) School of Law with an intense dedication to access to justice, one thing became crystal clear to me that very night. I knew I needed to mobilize UB law students to help the people of Puerto Rico.
In the months since, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been taking much longer than first expected to move toward a new “normal.” Moreover, as time has passed, the legal needs for many who were on the edge and already lacked access to justice have increased tremendously. Over these months, the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law, #UBLawResponds, has been forming itself as an effort dedicated to standing with the people of Puerto Rico and providing legal and other assistance.
Our journey to date has moved quickly. We were able to raise donations from incredibly generous alumni and friends to support our first service-learning trip (the resources that have been raised include funds that have allowed us to be able to bring humanitarian supplies to clients and communities). We received support from the University in the administrative aspects to forming a new clinical effort that we nicknamed #UBLawResponds. We had dedicated staff working hard (including many nights and weekends) to bring the clinic to fruition. We had many students apply to be part of the Student Attorney group for our initial 2018 clinic class, and a selection committee helped choose ten of them to be enrolled. We watched these selected Student Attorneys finish their fall papers and exams, then the very next day (December 15th) dive into 5 intense weeks of preparation for a 10 day service-learning trip, including two weeks of independent research and three weeks of six-hour-a-day classes on the UBLaw campus.
In preparation to be the supervising professor for these amazing #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys, I travelled to Puerto Rico the last week of December right before our class meeting started. During that pre-trip, I met with leadership of the University of Puerto Rico Law School (Universidad de Puerto Rico Escuela de Dericho) and its strong clinical program. I met with leadership of Ayuda Legal Huracán María. I also connected with other organizations similarly working to help move ahead. The enthusiasm for #UBLawResponds was heartwarming and helped me to prepare our students to become as ready for service as possible.
On January 21, 2018, our #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys arrived in Puerto Rico to begin our actual service. They are both prepared and eager to start the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Clinical Legal Education program’s commitment to serving Puerto Rico in its recovery process.
My previous experience with Puerto Rico (having visited the Island in 2016 for a family vacation) had been limited to that of a tourist…my children and I reveled in Puerto Rico, departing after a wonderful vacation knowing it as a beautiful place with lovely people. My December trip showed just how different things were after Maria. After the many meetings on my first full day in Puerto Rico in December, I wandered around San Juan and nearby. One particular moment came to symbolize post-Maria conditions for me. In a tourist area, as one of Puerto Rico’s infamous sudden downpours of rain started, I rushed to a bus shelter to keep myself dry while I got out my umbrella out of my bag. However, the shelter structure had not been repaired after Maria. So, as I stood there under the structure (pictured above), I continued to get soaked. Symbolically, as that broken shelter demonstrated directly to me, it will take much more time, lots more work, and significantly more money to help Puerto Rico recover … and those engaged in that effort will not always stay comfortable during this work. But despite Maria, Puerto Rico remains a beautiful place with lovely people.
Our true work is just beginning. In the coming 10 days and beyond, #UBLawResponds will be offering posts on this blog from our Student Attorneys chronicling their research, their experiences, and their ideas to help the Island. We will be observing and learning from many in #PuertoRico, including experts at the university and clients who come to us for help. We will be making plans as to how we can serve into the future. Please join us on this journey!