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Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, attorneys and students gathered last Friday for a symposium sponsored by the Black Law Students Association at Columbia Law School agreed it remains the worst of times for New Orleanians struggling to rebuild homes and livelihoods, and tens of thousands more in diaspora. In one of the milder assessments of a perfect post-Katrina storm – government ineptitude, opportunistic real estate developers and foot-dragging insurance companies – Damon T. Hewitt spoke of the power of institutional racism in holding back progress in predominantly black New Orleans. “What we’ve seen is failure to invest in human resources,” he said. “We should be outraged, but not shocked.” Mr. Hewitt, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and a New Orleans native, delivered his remarks during an afternoon panel organized by the Student Hurricane Network, a volunteer group of nearly 2,000 with chapters on dozens of law campuses across the country, including 13 in New York state. On April 30 in Albany, the network will be honored by the New York State Bar Association’s President’s Pro Bono Service Award for its work in helping hurricane victims in matters of criminal justice, housing, workers’ rights and government benefits. Morgan Williams, a student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans and co-founder of the network, also spoke at the Columbia Law event. He urged his volunteers to develop a “social narrative” of the post-hurricane situation in Louisiana and elsewhere along the damaged Gulf Coast. That narrative, said Laila Hlass, a Mississippi native and network leader at Columbia Law, must reflect the anger expressed by symposium speakers. “I believe in what they’re saying,” said Ms. Hlass, an associate at Chadbourne & Parke. “The population most widely affected were poor people, and people of color. You can’t discount the disinterest of some in the [federal] administration in serving their needs because it’s not a population that supports them.” Ross B. Bricker, a partner in Chicago’s Jenner & Block who works pro bono for displaced New Orleanians, said the “federal government and much of New Orleans just doesn’t want these people back,” meaning his clients, whom he described as “African Americans who are the poorest of the poor, largely female heads of households.” Many of his clients, said Mr. Bricker, were residents of New Orleans’ public housing projects, evacuated from low-rise brick apartment buildings now shut down by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which plans to raze the units and replace them with mixed-income homes. “With minor repairs,” said Mr. Bricker of the barricaded projects, “poor people could move back in there tomorrow.” Mr. Bricker also represents low-income homeowners trying to recoup losses and return home by applying for government loans and grants. One of the “stalling tactics” employed against those clients, he said, was to begin the application process by sending registered letters to the addresses of destroyed homes. Likewise, Adam F. Scales said insurance companies have offered “silly arguments in court” in denying homeowners’ claims. According to the companies in numerous cases, said Mr. Scales, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va., and chairman of the Association of American Law Schools Section on Insurance Law, flooding caused damage – as opposed to hurricane winds, without which there would have been no flooding. Since homes in New Orleans cannot be insured against flooding, per se, such claims are invalid and relief must be sought through the government. “Insurers are beginning to lose these causal liability claims,” said Mr. Scales. “My solution is simply this: We’re a nation of policy-holders. ‘Flood insurance’ should be a mandatory term.” ‘Market Forces’ Despite President George W. Bush’s dramatic prime-time TV promise to launch “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen,” Judge Arthur Hunter of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court said his city has been given “market forces rather than a Marshall plan.” In addition, he said, the criminal justice system has been so “severely damaged” that the 36 remaining Legal Aid attorneys have a collective caseload of approximately 2,600. Professor Lionel McIntyre, founding director of Columbia University’s Urban Technical Assistance Project, said the evacuation of New Orleans in the days preceding Katrina and the dispersal of its residents, especially the poor, constituted a “marketing success” benefitting banks and real estate developers. “Our mistake was in not insisting that this was a human rights issue,” said Mr. McIntyre, a carpenter in New Orleans in his younger days. “Rebuilding should be based on public need, not market forces.” During a luncheon prior to the panel discussion, Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington, D.C., attorney appointed special master of the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, asked a simple question: Why has such a fund not been established by the federal government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? - Thomas Adcock can be reached at [email protected].

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