I spent ten days in January 2018, alongside #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, doing pro bono work in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys worked from early morning to late at night (often past midnight) every day on legal brigades, humanitarian brigades, connecting with experts, doing research and writing, and thinking about how we could best serve. This meant we were immersed…but only to a point.
It is hard to describe exactly what is happening on the Islands to those who are not in Puerto Rico. Before I arrived, the students and I had read a lot of media, talked with many people, and done almost all the research we were capable of doing from the mainland. As is true for so many on the mainland, we were saddened by the pictures and descriptions of the devastation, dismayed by some of the response (or lack thereof) efforts by those who should be helping, and worried (about so many things).
As we began our service, the Student Attorneys and I realized that we were providing assistance to people who would be living without some things we take for granted for a long time to come. As visitors (there to serve and work hard, but with a plane ticket home), we approached our service-learning trip with the recognition that sometimes we might have to “do” without as we were working.
To make things affordable, #UBLawResponds rented AirBnB’s for our trip. The first morning of our full day, ironically, neither the student housing nor the housing where I was staying with my children had running water. We had to “do without” as we readied for work. No showers. No flushing toilets. And, of course, we made do. In fact, for most the days I was there, the AirBnB where I was staying with my children had no water for several hours early in the day. We actually got used to “doing without” water for part of the day. We also lost electricity…but we had a generator so we never had to do without power.
By contrast, most individuals and families that #UBLawResponds served were not just doing without temporarily – they were in fact truly living without, and had been for months. Moreover, many had no clear timeframe for when they would have reliable running water again.
And yet, most of the people we encountered demonstrated hope, shared smiles, and were making do much better than I can imagine I would in their situation. For example, in one town we visited for a brigade, many homes lacked running water…but there was running water in the community center. The shared toilet in that center was sparkling clean and sweetly decorated. People stood politely in line to use it, and were clearly grateful for its presence.
#UBLawResponds gave our team a chance to see what Puerto Rico is really facing, and provide some direct help during our trip. But it also motivated us to dig deeper into our research, to think even more creatively, and to work hard to figure out how we can help suggest some legal and policy changes that can work toward ending this time of semi-permanent “living without” faced by so many fellow citizens in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The #UBLawResponds team is committed to developing and sharing viable policy options going forward. You can help us keep on working for real change by donating here
We are now back in New York, and none of us on the team are forced to do without water. But none of us can forget those who are still living without in Puerto Rico.