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.

 

 

Sometimes I Get Angry: Contemplating the Role of Anger in Public Interest Work

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Sometimes, when working in a public interest organization, it can be difficult for me to remain calm. Sometimes I become angry and frustrated. I become angry and frustrated when I see people hurt needlessly. I become angry and frustrated when I see politicians and public figures disregard suffering. When I work with refugees and asylum seekers, I become angry and frustrated when I hear politicians and public figures speak poorly about people who have made the terrible decision to leave their homes.

As a Student Attorney in the University at Buffalo Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have often felt angry and frustrated. The President of the United States has been very clear in his lack of sympathy for Puerto Rico. Many news media outlets are no longer regularly reporting about Hurricane Maria and its impact on Puerto Rico. Government organizations, such as FEMA, have had lackluster responses to the hurricane: sometimes this is because the organization does not have the resources to help the island, but often it appears that a lot of organizations just don’t care that much. Learning how the fact that Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, making many mainland programs unavailable on the island, just adds to the anger and frustration I feel.

Being on the island with the #UBLawResponds team in January 2018, I find that anger isn’t enough of a reason to do the pro bono legal work I do. Anger and frustration is not enough to help anyone. It doesn’t help the people you are trying to advocate for. It doesn’t dismantle harmful policies and laws. It doesn’t change national discourse. It doesn’t change people’s minds. Anger, especially hot-blooded anger that spills over onto other people, usually does not serve a productive purpose.

One possible productive result of anger and frustration is that it sometimes serves as a fuel for yourself. Working in public interest is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting, and sometimes I’ve found that anger can serve as a short-term motivator when I feel like giving up to go work in corporate America. Anger can help me get that extra little bit of emotion to power through when I feel oppressed by the weight of all the work there is to do. However, if the only emotion powering you through public interest work is anger, then you will burn out faster than you would otherwise. So, I put aside my anger and focus again on the work at hand for #UBLawResponds and others continuing to serve those devastated by Hurricane Maria. You can support our continuing work here.