Classes resumed Tuesday at Houston’s three law schools after being canceled for a week due to flooding in the area from Hurricane Harvey.
The three campuses—the University of Houston Law Center; South Texas College of Law-Houston; and Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law—all escaped serious damage and flooding, though some law faculty, staff and students have lost homes, cars and other property.
“It’s not totally normal, but we’re fully operational,” said James Douglas, interim law dean at Texas Southern. “It takes awhile for people to be mentally calm after going through what we’ve bee going through for the past week or so. Even for people who didn’t get flooded, it weighs on your mind.”
The University of Houston Law Center was open Tuesday, but the halls were emptier than usual, according to Student Bar Association President Reed Fryar, who was on campus.
“The first thing students are asking each other is, ‘How did you do during the flood?’” Fryar said. “If the answer isn’t positive, the next question is always, ‘Do you need any help?’”
Many students simply could not make it into downtown for classes Tuesday due to ongoing flooding, said South Texas law dean Donald Guter.
“We’re taping classes for at least two weeks, and we’re providing content by several alternative means to get all the content to students who can’t make it,” Guter said. “There are still some areas of Houston where you can’t get in and out, or get around. I had people reporting that it took two hours to work their way around water to get here.”
Access issues aside, the Houston law schools have fared far better in the aftermath of Harvey than did the two law schools in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. Loyola University New Orleans School of Law relocated to the University of Houston Law Center for the fall 2005 semester because of heavy damage. Tulane University Law Center closed for four months, reopening in the January of 2006. By all accounts, this fall semester will proceed in Houston with some slight adjustments.
Absent significant physical damage to their campuses, the Houston law schools are now focused on helping students who were impacted by the storm.
The University of Houston and South Texas have each established funds in which alumni and the public can donate to students, faculty, and staff who suffered financial losses from the storm. The extent of that financial need, however, has yet to be determined, Guter said. Only about half the school’s students have formally checked in thus far. South Texas students have been checking in on each other, and the school has received reports of some whose apartments flooded and who lost books, computers, and other belongings.
“Its still hard to tell, but there are stories of students who have lost everything and are struggling to figure out how they will put it all back together,” Guter said.
At the University of Houston, 83 percent of law students have responded to the school’s survey about their situations and needs following Harvey, said dean Leonard Baynes. Administrators are now focusing on getting in touch with those non-respondents. The law school is providing meals to students and faculty all week and is encouraging professors to record classes, Baynes added.
In addition to helping each other, Houston’s law students have been aiding the wider community. Texas Southern’s law school hosted a food and clothing distribution event Sunday for storm victims. The school partnered with a Dallas-based organization to bring six 18-wheel trucks packed with food and clothing to the campus, which were given to hundreds of impacted residents. The school’s legal clinic is also working with people who need help filing insurance paperwork and FEMA forms, Douglas said.
The head of the immigration clinic at the University of Houston has volunteered at the city’s main emergency shelter to help evacuees with immigration issues, and will return to another shelter Wednesday with students, Baynes said.
And students themselves have been organizing many relief efforts, Fryar said.
“The Public Interest Law Organization started a donation drive for school supplies for the five high schools University of Houston Law Center students work with in the Street Law program,” she said. “The Criminal Law Association is organizing volunteer efforts and donations for several nonprofits in need. The Black Law Students Association gathered its members for three different community service opportunities this past weekend alone and is planning a fundraiser.”
The deans said that several courts have contacted their schools asking for temporary space amid courthouse closures that could last six months or longer, and that they are gauging whether they have any spaces to offer them.
But restoring a sense of normalcy remains a top priority.
“We’re trying to get our students back in a place where they can learn and study,” Guter said. “I think a lot of them are having trouble focusing because they have so many things on their mind. We have staff ready for any counseling they may need. Most of the students I’ve talked to have sad they’re OK they just really want to get back to normal.”
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ