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.

 

 

A Smile and a Handshake is More Than Enough – My First Client

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The path to understanding the true value of the profession I have chosen perhaps began the day I received my LSAT score. At the time, I thought, how do I best challenge myself now that I have some measure of what I can do and where I can go to pursue a legal career. The challenge itself was what I valued the most at the time. I yearned for the academic rigors, challenging my mind and developing new understandings while I learned the profession. Almost two years have passed and my outlook on the legal profession, and more importantly, on life itself, has changed significantly.

For some, the goal remains to get the best job, which for most might mean the highest salary or a position at the biggest firm in the city. For others, it might mean breaking the barriers and leaving their hometown, heading to New York City maybe, or Washington. Now, I am not trying to judge or demean what is valuable to others. But I believe I now value other things, which within the context of life and humanity, mean to me more than any position, any salary, and any way other way of life. Let me tell you the story of how a smile and a handshake became the greatest measure of success in my legal career so far.

IMG_1291On January 25th, some of my colleagues and I went to Villa Cañona in Loiza, Puerto Rico. We were taking part in a legal brigade, started by one of our local partners, to provide legal service to a community devastated by Hurricane Maria. The goal for us student attorneys was to provide help in any way we could, whether that was interviewing clients, filing an appeal to FEMA, or even being on hold on the phone with FEMA for an hour trying to get a status update for a client. At first, I truly felt helpless in many ways. I talked to some locals and listened to their unfortunate stories. But there was nothing I could do, I was powerless beyond my willingness to lend an ear. That was until the end of our shift, when this gentleman walked in. I’ll call him Mr. Rivera.

Mr. Rivera walked in, looking kind of lost and somewhat helpless. He stood by the entrance looking around until his eyes met mine. I stood up and went over to greet him and ask him how we could help him; as I had done during the whole day. He told me he needed to file a claim with FEMA. Of course, up to that point, we had been filing appeals with FEMA; homeowners that had filed their initial claim and had been denied. But this gentleman had not yet been able to sit in front of a computer, understand the steps he had to take, and file his claim. As had been the process so far, I was ready to refer Mr. Rivera to one of the attorneys. However, once I told them what the man needed, the attorneys felt this was something I could do. Simple, right? Just file a claim.

I sat next to Mr. Rivera, opened my laptop, connected to a wireless hotspot, and proceeded to file his claim. As I asked him questions related to his situation, I had the opportunity to stare him in the eyes. I could almost feel what he felt. We got through it and there was, at that moment, no feeling out of the ordinary. That was until he stood up in front of me, leaned forward, grabbed my hand with both of his, and said “Thank you, young man,” as he let out a pleasant smile. At that moment, some of my colleagues and my professor saw me, and I believe they understood what I had just experienced and what it meant for me. However, for me, someone who is truly not used to exploring his feelings, I have only now, as I write this, just begun to understand what that moment meant for me and for the rest of my career.

The biggest paycheck I will ever receive, the greatest title I will ever have, truly means nothing. Smaller moments of gratitude and humility seem to have a greater impact on my life than anything else. I felt a strong sense of purpose and determination at that moment. Maybe Mr. Rivera will get denied, and someone else will file his appeal. But I was his aid at that moment, someone who was willing to help and be at his side. Since this clinical experience began, I have slowly been learning the true meaning of service; the spiritual concept deeply rooted in our humanity, not just the meaning of the word. However, through that half hour I spent with Mr. Rivera, I saw the outcome of serving; what it means to those I serve. It is not about a selfish sense of gratification, but about putting forth the best version of ourselves, causing a perdurable moment of relief to those who desperately need it. He might never hear about it, but Mr. Rivera may have given me one of the biggest, most humbling, and most important lessons of a career that has yet begun. Thanks to you, Mr. Rivera, a smile and handshake is more than enough.

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