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On a late-November sunny day in Louisiana, Marisa Katz drives east from downtown New Orleans to Chalmette, one of the areas most ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Houses stand forlornly along the road, their windows broken and insides gutted. Gas stations and stores are boarded up. There are no pedestrians in sight. Katz, a 28-year-old attorney with New Orleans Legal Assistance (NOLAC), pulls into the edge of a shopping center next to a large white tent, one of the disaster-relief centers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She walks through the tent door, past a pair of swaggering men in military fatigues. They are members of Blackwater USA, a private security contractor known for its work in Iraq, who have been hired to guard FEMA staff. Yet the people who trudge into the center are hardly threatening as they wait for hours to fill out applications for trailers and financial aid. Wedged between groups offering Medicaid and insurance information, Katz and her NOLAC colleagues take four-hour shifts, answering questions and signing up clients who can’t afford a lawyer. A woman whose mortgage company had dropped her flood insurance coverage stops by. An elderly couple ask if they should continue paying their mortgage, since they won’t be rebuilding their house. “Being part of Legal Assistance has been psychologically helpful,” Katz tells the reporter accompanying her. She recalls talking to a young man who found his parents drowned in their attic. “There are a million stories like that,” she says.
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The primary legal aid group in New Orleans, NOLAC provides a lifeline for the legions of hurricane victims now being cut a raw deal by landlords and insurance companies. NOLAC lawyers are especially sensitive because they too have been devastated by the storm. Seventy-five percent of the group’s employees lost their houses, and many had to leave the city, reducing the number of staff attorneys from 30 to 23. “When you’ve lost your own home, it’s hard to think straight,” says Mark Moreau, a 28-year veteran and co-executive director of NOLAC. Moreau, whose house was engulfed in a 7-foot wall of water, is living with relatives. “It’s so hard to get things done without computers and e-mail and support staff and with the courts being closed,” he says. The group also lost its Chalmette outpost in the storm and did not return to the site of the wreckage until early December. Wearing masks, Katz, Moreau, and two other staffers slogged through thick mud up to their second-floor office to find the ceilings and one wall caved in. They were able to salvage a few papers among the moldy files. HOLDING ONTO HOME Founded in 1967, NOLAC receives most of its $3.3 million annual funding from Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit established by Congress to give poor people access to lawyers. Before Katrina hit, NOLAC had 3,000 cases, ranging from housing and workplace disputes to domestic violence cases and child custody battles. Its clients have now scattered across the country, along with witnesses and opposing attorneys, so most of these matters are on hold indefinitely. In its new incarnation, NOLAC is primarily helping people fight evictions. More than 10,000 people were reportedly evicted in November, after Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco’s two-month moratorium on legal proceedings came to an end. With housing scarce, landlords who had been renting property for $375 per month can now get $1,000 from construction workers contracted by FEMA. It’s an uphill struggle for the public defenders. For example, NOLAC won a victory in mid-November, when a judge ruled that the residents of a trailer park could not be removed for nonpayment of rent. But afterward, the landlord served the residents a 10-day notice to leave. “There’s little defense to no-cause evictions,” Moreau says. “All we can do is buy them some time.” Three months after Katrina slammed into New Orleans, the city retains an air of hopeless desperation. The residents of the Lower Ninth Ward were not allowed back into the area until Dec. 1. While many shops in the French Quarter and the business district have opened, the main roads out of town lead to devastated, deserted swaths of land. People in white suits and masks gather up mounds of debris on the sidewalks and medians. As you follow Orleans Avenue to the north and Tulane Avenue to the west, past the fortresslike criminal courthouse, there is a strong odor of rot. Outside a house in Chalmette, a waterlogged book lies on the sidewalk. Its faded title: The Millionaire Mind. CALLING ALL ANGELS But this desperation is a magnet for good Samaritans, and many lawyers across the country have jumped at the chance to help out. The Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association, which has an ongoing contract with FEMA to provide legal help wherever disaster strikes, has organized attorneys to staff about 45 disaster-relief centers in Louisiana and 35 in Mississippi. The division also helped the Louisiana State Bar Association set up a hot line for low-income people that is staffed by law students.

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Firms across the country have taken on major tasks, as well. New York’s Schulte Roth & Zabel is working with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in a pending class action against FEMA on behalf of the victims of Katrina. The suit seeks a court order requiring the agency to provide victims with temporary housing assistance. Several firms have helped The Appleseed Foundation come up with Katrina-related legislative proposals. Schulte has done research on family law issues, and Jones Day has looked at ways to ensure that local businesses and displaced residents are hired to rebuild the city. Yet more firms have filed class actions against insurance companies for denial of flood coverage, the Army Corps of Engineers over the city’s defective levees, and government agencies over their response to Katrina. And New Orleans-based McGlinchey Stafford is tracking litigation and legislation at hurricanelawblog.com. NOLAC, too, is getting reinforcements from all over the country. King & Spalding and Debevoise & Plimpton called Moreau to offer support. King & Spalding partner Reagan Smith took on an oral argument in a dispute that went before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in December. The suit, which contends that vouchers for Section 8 housing should include money to pay for utilities, was a new area of law for Smith. He spent a day in NOLAC’s New Orleans office going over his presentation with the attorneys. “I think what they are doing is amazing,” Smith says. “They are very courageous.” NOLAC, which took the case in 2004, was relieved to hand it off to Smith. Debevoise plans to send lawyers to NOLAC’s office to help out, and students from Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, the University of North Carolina School of Law, and Loyola University New Orleans School of Law have also volunteered. Others have sent money. The American Bar Association contributed $133,000, which Moreau says will pay for the salaries of two attorneys for one year. And the AARP Foundation and Debevoise donated enough to support two junior attorneys for a year. Legal Services Corp. also sent the group an additional $50,000 grant after Katrina hit. The people of New Orleans will need Katrina-related legal help for years as they face bank foreclosures, construction scams, predatory loans, and ongoing battles with FEMA. To help meet their needs, Washington, D.C.’s Equal Justice Works is raising money to send 15 attorneys to the Gulf Coast to work with local law schools and groups like NOLAC. So far, Equal Justice has brought in $1 million from the JEHT Foundation and $370,000 in donations from the Association of Corporate Counsel, Greenberg Traurig, Latham & Watkins, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, Pfizer Inc., and Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. (Legal Times and its parent company, ALM, have supported the Equal Justice Works campaign by providing advertising.) “We’re trying to overcome a devastation of biblical proportions,” Moreau says. “The help we’ve received from volunteer lawyers, law students, and others has lifted our spirits and let us know we’re not alone in this battle.”

Brenda Sandburg is a staff writer for The American Lawyer , the ALM publication where this article first appeared.

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