Reflections on Serving a Strong People Facing Intricate Fragility, One Year After Hurricane Maria

It’s been a year. Recovering from a disaster like Hurricane Maria was never expected to be complete by now. A Category 4 hurricane, Maria engulfed the Islands of Puerto Rico on the 20th of September 2017, leaving thousands of people dead, many more without IMG_7790the necessities of life, transforming certain ecosystems forever, traumatizing survivors, and changing the Islands of Puerto Rico forevermore. Hurricane Maria lead to heartache and hope, for people on the Islands and those of us watching in solidarity from afar. And on this anniversary, those of us who are very far away but left a part of our hearts there, still are pondering how to assist from here in the years ahead.

Since Maria, in my capacity as a law professor and director of the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have been to Puerto Rico five times. I traveled there in December, again for two weeks over January-February, then returned three times in the summer (in June, July, and August). As a lawyer offering pro bono policy and legal service, my presence was not needed immediately after the storm. I got there after some of the worst visible damage was repaired, and the planning for how to help people, communities, and the territory recover began in earnest. As I look back, I arrived as the intricate fragility of Puerto Rico’s new reality was setting in.

IMG_8178Through those trips, I have seen progress in recovery, and gotten to know people of amazing resilience. I have also come to understand the nature of the legal limitations facing the territory. I have puzzled about the legacy of challenging energy and water delivery services and how to encourage real energy, climate justice, and other sustainability. I have witnessed the tough economics of many of those whose families have called the Islands home for generations (as compared to those who visit to play or profit). I have seen the gorgeous ecosystem which has regrown in some ways, but been immutably changed in others. And I have looked into the eyes and heard the stories of some of those who are working for access to true justice.

My two favorite trips were when I had the honor of travelling alongside over a dozen amazing #UBLawResponds-PR student attorneys. With the backing of generous donors and the many extra hours of labor by dedicated staff, these young people worked extremely hard to prepare and serve in the wake of the disaster. The University atIMG_9516 Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinicwas the best of service-learning, offering raw insight into both human needs and human strength. The Clinic showed these soon-to-be attorneys up close what people with legal and policy training can do…and what they can’t do. It left most of them wanting to do more, not only in Puerto Rico, but also for other vulnerable populations.

Yet here we are, a year after Maria struck. In the reports that look back today, we can read and listen to incredibly intense stories. Like the one from NPR exploring how an “unbearable debt crisis, the antiquated power grid and gross political ambition and unreliability were accomplices to the natural disaster.”Or story exploring some personal aftermath published by the New York Times entitled “Sunrise Melodies and Tearful Reflections: Puerto Rico a Year After Maria,” relating the experiences of people “still wrangling with the federal government over money to rebuild their home” and noting that “generosity and the solidarity among neighbors was the only positive remnant of the storm.” Or one ABC affiliate’s video, reporting on a town where #UBLawResponds-PR Student Attorneys assisted with pro bono legal services, in a piece entitled “AccuWeather in Puerto Rico: Hundreds of homes in Loiza still damaged 1 year after Hurricane Maria.”Or a Reuters piece, that relays a heartbreaking truth: “shuttered businesses, blue tarp roofs and extensively damaged homes can still be seen throughout Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island with 150 mile-per-hour winds, and access to electricity and fresh water remain spotty.” Or the Associate Press story “For Puerto Rico’s poor, hurricane was heavy blow” that tells the story of a man who received seriously insufficient federal aid and has emptied his pension since the storm, and “sees no immediate prospect of moving out of the only habitable space in his home, an enclosed balcony still missing windows from Maria.” Such vivid coverage of the actual storm itself one year ago was only the beginning. Stories of the tragic aftermath and the intricate fragility will continue for years to come.

IMG_9295#UBLawResponds-PR knows firsthand what Puerto Rico is facing, and is continuing to do work with and for Puerto Rico community partners. At this point, our work is primarily in the areas of resilience and energy/climate justice, insurance, and work on behalf of veterans who live there. We are proud of the service we have already done, and remain committed to being of continuing service from Buffalo. We know that, ¡Puerto Rico se levanta! (loosely translated to Puerto Rico stands up (or rises)) … and #UBLawResponds-PR will continue to stand with them.

 

 

Student Attorneys Post-service Contemplations

The University at Buffalo School of Law’s student attorneys in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic dedicated the end of their December 2018, and all of their January 2018, to preparing for and providing legal and humanitarian service to some of those in need on the Islands of Puerto Rico. Many of the students produced final blog posts, although some of them finished their work in other ways. What follows are those posts that were submitted during March and April after the closing ceremony for our formal course.

To introduce them, here are pictures of the students at work at the University at Puerto Rico Law School, and in a group debriefing and reflection session at their AirBnB after a day-long brigade. #UBLawResponds!

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A Closing Ceremony That Opened Hearts

On the first Sunday in March 2018, the ten Student Attorneys from the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic gathered with their teaching team (Kim Diana Connolly and Karla Raimundi) for a final class and closing ceremony. It was fun to be together again with the #UBLawResponds gang! We lunched, caught up, checked in on final assignments, planned for the April “Puerto Rico Day” events, and had a closing ceremony. I told all of them in that ceremony that we will remain connected for years because of the commitment they all made, demonstrated with their amazing hard work and perseverance.

At the closing ceremony, we ended our shared classroom journey.

Each of the students added a rock to a bowl filled with salt water and a piece of coral from the waters of Puerto Rico. It was meant to represent all the Islands and the people of Puerto Rico. Their rocks were meant to symbolize the heaviness of what the Islands of Puerto Rico and their people faced after Huricán Maria, and into today. After that, each student poured a few drops of water from a very small pitcher of fresh water, symbolizing the offerings (in terms of both work and caring) of each student in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Clinic. After they poured the water, each student said “Puerto Rico Se Levanta” – and the full team replied “#UBLawResponds Stands with Them.”

There were tears. There was gratitude. There was hope.

It was an honor to work alongside these students, watching them serve and seeing them demonstrate some of the commitment to Access to Justice that will make them great lawyers in the years to come!

The End of the Beginning: #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has just commenced our journey

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For those of you who have followed this blog, you know that in January 2018, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic had an amazing service-learning adventure. After more than five weeks of classwork and preparation starting mid-December 2017 in Buffalo, these students, myself, and other UB staff were ready to travel to Puerto Rico. There we met experts, stood with law students and proficient faculty from University of Puerto Rico’s Law School, worked with other UPR experts, assisted community partners on legal brigades, and gathered on-the-ground data, stories, and experience to help draft papers and reports that we hope will inform ways forward after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

While in Puerto Rico, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys helped local lawyers file over 80 FEMA appeals and provide other legal assistance. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys raised money and purchased supplies and solar lamps for more than 800 families, delivered on multiple humanitarian brigades to strong people in distant places who have been without water, power, and other basic supplies for more than four months. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys met with local experts to plan long-term community-based research projects. You may have read about some of these adventures through Student Attorney blog posts.

What those blog posts may not have made clear, however, is the amazing fact that #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys worked from early morning to late at night (often past midnight) every day. They were fierce in their commitment to (but gentle in their delivery of) both access to justice and basic supplies. The dedication of UB’s students made my heart sing (hace latir mi corazón).

I have met with each of these amazing Student Attorneys since our return. To a person, they remain committed to ensuring that the work of this clinic will continue. You will have a chance to read their final papers and reports for this course on this website next month. But that will not be the conclusion of the overall work.

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When this formal course wraps up later this month, it will only be the end of this first chapter. In other words … it will be the end of the beginning.

The mission that the students drafted during our January class has not changed:

Because recovery goes beyond disaster relief, #UBLawResponds provides practical legal research and thoughtful pro bono service, through an ongoing collaborative effort to empower a resilient Puerto Rico.

 

El camino a la restauración va más allá de responder a los efectos de un desastre natural. La misión de la clínica legal de la Universidad del Estado de Nueva York es contribuir al proceso de empoderamiento de Puerto Rico proveyendo servicios de investigación legal gratuitos con aplicaciones prácticas en colaboración con la comunidad puertorriqueña y sus aliados. 

Stay tuned. #PRSeLevanta, #UBLawResponds stands with them.

“Living Without” versus “Being Without” Reflections on How Law and Policy Can’t Immediately Solve Certain Problems (Like No Running Water) But Can Offer Hope

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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.

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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.

Checking in with #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys at the Halfway Mark…

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The Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has reached the halfway point of our January 2018 service learning trip to the Island. In keeping with best practices for clinical legal education, #UBLawResponds students have been engaging in regular reflections throughout our classwork and our fieldwork. Today, we did a quick reflective check-in. Students offered one word that summarized one of their feelings in light of their work on our legal and humanitarian “brigades” over the past few days. Below is a compilation, in no particular order, of some of the words they offered.

  • Humbled
  • Helpless
  • Wholesome
  • Touched
  • Exhausted
  • Incomplete
  • Relaxed
  • Okay
  • Inspired
  • Connected
  • Frantic
  • Comradery
  • Conflicted
  • Undeserving
  • Frantic
  • Meaningful
  • Honored

I wish those of you reading this blog on the mainland could see how hard the #UBLawResponds students are working, how seriously they are taking this service, and how much these future lawyers are recognizing the unique opportunity they are experiencing. The generosity of the many donors who have made this service possible is much appreciated by our entire team. You can help #UBLawResponds work continue beyond the next week by donating here.

Puerto Rico se levanta, #UBLawResponds stands with them

25743402458_aede848df7_oOn 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.

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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!

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