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.

 

 

Connecting with Welcoming Experts in Puerto Rico

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Group planning brunch with Professor Connolly, Professor Ortiz Garcia, UPR student Ibrahim Rodriguez and UB Student Attorneys Dave Yovanoff and Eamon Riley.

Puerto Rico was a welcoming place. Despite some concerns among those of us serving as Student Attorneys in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic before coming, seldom did we feel uncomfortable or unwanted. After explaining our presence to experts on the islands, the most common response was to help us achieve our goal, whether by pointing us to the next house in need of supplies, or by explaining an obscure legal issue. These individual interactions coalesced to paint a broader picture of Puerto Rico, and helped me to identify areas of potential, and concern, for the islands.

One early interaction I had was with the Director of the Environmental Legal Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Law School. Once I explained to him that I was a dual degree student pursuing both a JD and an Urban Planning Master’s degree, he was able to quickly take me through changes he sees underway in Puerto Rico’s land use regulations. The Puerto Rico Planning Board serves as a centralized planning agency for the island. Currently, there are proposed changes that will weaken the role of the Planning Board, and empower individual municipalities in making land use decisions. While there are positives and negatives to both structures for land use planning, the current proposed change presents opportunity to implement innovative policy tailored to local contexts. He also informed us to major supply chain issues for local and organic farmers, and the implementation of plans as presenting potential problems.

Along with my colleague Dave, I also met with two planning professors at UPR, Luis E. Santiago Acevedo, and Maritza Barreto-Orta Ph. D. These professors focused on issues primarily associated with water.  When we explained our ideas around water and solar, they were able to confirm some of our hypothesis. They explained that water quality and delivery is a vexing issue for many on the islands. Further, they described difficulties farmers have in attaining “bonafied status” for their crops. The professors illustrated the differences between upper and lower watersheds, relative to where crops are grown, and the types of agriculture methods used. Prof. Santiago also spoke on the recent reinvestment in sugar production as a potential economic growth area.

These early meeting with expert academics from UPR provided a context sensitive understanding that we built upon with people working in the field implementing solutions. Cecilio Ortiz García, and his student Ibrahim Rodriguez, met us for a breakfast meeting on our day off. They are working to establish a platform, known as INESI, to connect sustainability projects across PR. Their goal is to build a collaborative framework to maximize the potential impact of these projects. Connecting with them allowed our team to speak at the RISE-PR videoconference to share our on the ground work with #UBLawResponds.

Finally, we were lucky to meet Tara Rodríguez Besosa, as well as two of her collaborators Luz Cruz, and Ora Wise. Their team has been, and continues, to do amazing on the ground work bringing healthy, sustainable, and local foods to Puerto Rico. Before the Hurricane, Tara was running El Departmento de Comida, a local food hub that had grown into a farm-to-table restaurant. During the Hurricane’s immediate aftermath, their team was working with Queer Kitchen Brigade to pickle and ferment local donated produce to ship to Puerto Rico. After the hurricane, Tara is returning her organization to its roots by reestablishing the food hub, and working with the Resiliency Fund develop 200 new farms in the next two years. Her emphasis on local and sustainable products and import replacement has a need for supportive legislative, on the state and local level in Puerto Rico. Her model for economic development could be replicated and altered to fit other industries to help regrow Puerto Rico’s economy.

Each expert we met helped to further assemble the complex picture of Puerto Rico’s status. Each new connection strengthened our long term relationship with the islands. Each new piece of information helped to get our perspectives to a better place for serving Puerto Rico. We have taken this information, and have made an effort to form what will be the future of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Hopefully, that clinic will allow new students in #UBLawResponds to grow as they work to serve Puerto Rico and its long term recovery.

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 Simple Things In Life: Observations of post-Maria Puerto Rico

10_37_42Four months have passed since hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico and conditions are far less than adequate, but the people are pushing through and doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.  Private companies, organizations, and individuals have stepped up to work with their fellow Americans where the government has failed.  Most of all, the sense of community and perseverance among Puerto Ricans has been extremely touching and motivating.

As a student attorney in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law, I have observed that even in the most rehabilitated areas of San Juan, it is common to find electric poles snapped in half, transformers dangling a few feet from the ground, hundreds of feet of electric cables lining the edges of the roads, homes with tarp roofs, as well as homes with no roof at all that are still inhabited. The majority of traffic lights still do not work at all, many road and highway signs are uprooted and knocked-over, and there are periodic piles of brush and debris on the sides of roads. There are never ending remnants of the destruction Maria wrought and reminders of the abandonment of Puerto Rico.

Our #UBLawResponds law clinic has been going on what we call “humanitarian brigades” in rural towns, where we bring communities necessities such as soap, baby wipes, adult diapers, batteries, bed pads, towels, and solar lamps. So far, it has been one of the most important experiences of my life. People are struggling so hard just to survive. After Maria, thousands of people began leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland and as time has passed, thousands more people followed suit. Some abandoned houses have laundry hanging on the patio along with plants tastefully placed potted plants. Some of the most recently abandoned houses look as if the occupants disappeared mid-day.

This exodus to the mainland has led to tangential problems with serious consequences. Numerous disabled and bed-ridden people have died because their neighbors and caretakers moved to the mainland and no one remained who knew about their condition. On one brigade, we stopped at the house of a bed-ridden individual to give them a box of supplies, but he had died two days before we got there. A neighbor was caring for another elderly bed-ridden individual. When we began giving the caretaker some general supplies, she was very touched … but when we gave her a towel, she began to cry. A towel. A simple $2.88 bath towel from Walmart meant so much to this kind woman that she began to cry.

As difficult as these encounters are, I am thankful for them. I am thankful we are able to help people in significant ways. I am thankful for the reality check and perspective they provide. Most of all, I am thankful I get to see the strength, kindness, resilience, and perseverance of Puerto Ricans.

#PRSeLevanta! If you would like to support the continuing work of #UBLawResponds, please click here.

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.