A heavily damaged farm is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.
A heavily damaged farm is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. (Gerald Herbert)

Florida State University College of Law is preparing to take about 10 law students from the University of Puerto Rico, which is closed for the foreseeable future due to damage wrought by Hurricane Maria.

The displaced law students will be able to complete their fall semester studies at the Tallahassee campus at no additional cost, according to FSU law dean Erin O’Hara O’Connor.

O’Connor said she reached out to Puerto Rico law dean Vivian Neptune Rivera after the storm to offer help to students whose studies have been disrupted.

“When I first reached her, the roads were still impassable and she didn’t know how long the law school would be closed,” O’Connor said on Tuesday. “She reached out a few days later and said thankfully the school had minimal physical damage. The issue is just electricity, and if we could take students for the rest of the semester, that would be very helpful.”

A consortium of five law schools has agreed to work with the University of Puerto Rico to bring in small groups of students. A total of about 35 Puerto Rican law students are expected to complete the semester at Florida State, State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law, Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, University of Missouri School of Law and University of Pittsburgh School of Law, according to O’Connor.

“[The University of Puerto Rico] decided to work with a handful of schools so their students could go in groups and to make sure we had a plan the ABA would sign off on,” she said. “They went with the schools that seemed to be offering the most, in terms of being willing to modify the curriculum, provide mentoring, housing, and taking care of some of the other needs.”

The American Bar Association has approved the plan, O’Connor said, and the schools can give Puerto Rican law students reduced credit for courses they join late. The visiting law students are in their second and third years, and many need to complete their fall studies because they have jobs and externships lined up for the spring, O’Connor said.

Law schools have a history of helping each other out in the wake of natural disasters. The University of Houston Law Center hosted Loyola University New Orleans School of Law for the fall 2005 semester, after the school sustained major damage from Hurricane Katrina. And students at New Orleans schools found temporary homes at many different law schools at that time, including Florida State.

The deans of Houston’s three law schools said they were inundated with offers of assistance from other law campuses in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in September. Those campuses saw only minor damage and were able to reopen within a week and half.

O’Connor said she received advice that it’s better for disaster-affected law schools to work directly with the deans of other schools, rather than have students try to navigate their options individually.

Florida State had its own brush with Hurricane Irma and was closed for 10 days before and after the storm due to mass evacuations. That closure—along with the fact that the school has a relatively late start to the fall semester—will help make it easier for the Puerto Rican students to catch up and finish the semester, O’Connor said. If they arrive next week, they will have missed only three weeks. Law faculty have agreed to modify their syllabi and some may offer special sections specifically for the displaced students.

But precisely when the students can get to Tallahassee remains a question.

“I’m hoping they can get flights out and join us quickly,” O’Connor said. “We don’t anticipate that they won’t be able to do it, but you just don’t know with so many people trying to leave Puerto Rico right now. We have to make sure they get books and materials. We have students willing to help and mentor.”

The law school has also been inundated with alumni offering financial support and housing for the Puerto Rican students. The school aims to place the visiting students together in apartments close to campus.

According to ABA data, there were nearly 700 students enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico’s law school last academic year. The school may just redo the fall semester in the spring, when hopefully electricity has been restored,” O’Connor said.

“We’re excited to have these students come,” she added. “Like a lot of people in the general community, to help in a way that’s personally connected I think is great. We can all text cash and give blood, but to actually meet the people we’re helping is gratifying.”