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.

 

 

Helping Overcome Darkness: Observations on the Creation of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic

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“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”  – Anne Frank

I can remember when the October surprise storm hit Buffalo in October of 2006.  The wet snow came on Thursday, October 12. By Friday, October 13th, there were trees limbs everywhere. We had no power and we were shoveling out snow. It also happened to be the weekend of my wedding. A year of planning and then all I felt was panic that none of it would happen. We were lucky, despite a few small glitches our wedding went on as planned. However, we were without power for 13 days.  Our street was the last to get it back on … those 13 days living on generator power felt like forever.

I cannot imagine that there are people in Puerto Rico who have been living without power for 139 days since Hurricane Maria devastated the island.  Without power – powerless. Absence of light – darkness.

It saddens me to know that the people of Puerto Rico who are citizens of the very same United States of America that I call home would feel such a sense of powerlessness in their own country. That we are not supporting them. That they are living in darkness.

Within days of starting in my new position in the department of Clinical Legal Education, Hurricane Maria hit. Professor Kim Diana Connolly had an idea that seemed crazy and completely impossible to achieve: bring a group of students to Puerto Rico to help with the recovery and provide access to justice to people who need it most in the aftermath of a horrible disaster. The idea of the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic was born.

As part of the administrative support team, I did not have time to think about how crazy it was, I just had to get to work. Approvals needed to be gotten, complex paperwork and negotiations had to be completed, donors had to be nurtured and encouraged, students had to be recruited and selected…and the rest of my job responsibilities had to be met!

Fast forward to January 2 and the students who had been selected started class and it was time to make sure that we had everything prepared that they would need when the hit the ground in Puerto Rico. Daily classes for six hours each, coordinating guests and documents and still making arrangements for the trip,… and the rest of my job responsibilities still had to be met!

As I look back at the first few weeks of January, I do not know where all the time went.  It was a whirlwind of working on getting electronics, making reservations for flights, accommodations, meeting space. Then all of the sudden it was January 19 – my last day in the office with Professor Connolly before the group’s departure on January 21.  Business cards printed, polo shirts packed, name badges ready, banners and signage and electronics were ready to go. I felt a sense of pride that the things that I helped to organize and prepare would be just a small part of helping #UBLawResponds and our students drive out some of the darkness. That I was a small part of helping people feel as though they were no longer powerless that they had the tools to begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

We are all just a single candle…. but even just one candle can light up the dark and bring hope. I’m grateful to have had the chance to help our student attorneys and Professor Connolly bring hope, power, and light to Islands inhabited by our fellow citizens. #PuertoRicoselevanta #UBLawRespondsstandswithyou