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On Aug. 29, the day Hurricane Katrina hit the northern Gulf Coast, Jason M. Ryan’s grandmother died of cancer in Texas. The loss would become doubly painful to the Baker Botts Houston associate when he learned that his grandmother’s sister had drowned in her home in Bay Saint Louis, Miss., during the powerful hurricane. There was time to mourn, but none to waste. Houston would soon become the focal point for volunteers to provide for the desperate needs of 1 million coastal residents, primarily Louisianans, displaced by the storm’s 140-mph winds and destructive floods. About 125,000 evacuees were coming and would need legal help. Eight days following the storm, Baker Botts’ Houston office trained 500 lawyers to provide free legal counseling through the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program (HVLP). Ryan, who represents energy companies in regulatory matters and civil litigation, was determined to be one of the 75 Baker Botts volunteers, but he didn’t know how he would help. The group had a threefold strategy: legal counseling booths in the large shelters, such as the Astrodome; mobile teams of lawyers visiting smaller shelters such as churches; and lawyers answering a telephone hotline. The night of the training, Ryan asked HVLP director David Mandell how he could help “make it happen.” Mandell said he soon realized Ryan would not be just one of many helpers. That night Ryan helped with data entry to organize the volunteers, sent out e-mails to schedule them and got everyone dinner, Mandell said. Then, “at 6 a.m. the next morning, there’s Jason,” Mandell said. For the next six weeks, Ryan worked side by side full time with Mandell, doing everything imaginable to “make it happen.” Among his achievements was overcoming significant bureaucratic hurdles for volunteer lawyers to work at booths at the Astrodome and other large shelters, said Mandell. Wary evacuees Between the red tape and bias against lawyers, officials were “leery of letting us in,” Ryan said. Also wary were the many evacuees, who weren’t sure how lawyers could help, he said. Ryan handed out fliers and explained to evacuees what the attorneys could do for them. Ryan said some had never met a lawyer and were nervous just to be talking to one. Lawyers could answer questions about child support, mortgages, Social Security, bank accounts, immigration and bankruptcy. “A lot of this is not legal,” he said. “It really is just counseling and problem-solving. Every lawyer is trained to do that.”
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