The New York City office of LatinoJustice is sending lawyers on a fact-finding mission to Puerto Rico next week in advance of a larger effort to dispatch hundreds of lawyers to help residents file insurance claims, seek disaster assistance and get compensated for lost wages following Hurricane Maria.
Some of the 600 volunteers who have volunteered to help the hurricane victims are gathering Monday night at CUNY Law School in Long Island City to learn the basics of labor and employment issues, housing and tenant disputes, insurance coverage and disaster relief. The organization is also preparing videos to help train more lawyers and law students.
LatinoJustice is primarily seeking lawyers who are fluent in Spanish because 60 percent of island residents either do not speak English at all or do not speak it well, according to the most recent Census.
Juan Cartagena, a New York City lawyer who is president and general counsel for LatinoJustice, said the fact-finding mission is needed because the organization wants to time its larger trip in a way that won’t deplete scarce resources in Puerto Rico.
“Still today 80 percent of the island doesn’t have electricity,” Cartagena said. “When can we go when we’re not creating a drain on the people of Puerto Rico—on the food, water and power. At the same time we have to be sure that people know their legal rights.”
A working group has been formed in Puerto Rico to lead the effort. It includes the clinics and pro bono student groups from all three law schools, the Puerto Rico Bar Association and the Civil Rights Commission. In the United States, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, ProBono.net, the Louisiana Civil Justice Center, Columbia University Law School’s Pro Bono student group and the NYC Bar Association are participating.
During the fact-finding mission, Natasha Bannan, a New York City lawyer who is associate counsel of LatinoJustice, will determine when the lawyers should be deployed and where to set up offices so that the lawyers will have access to electricity and the internet.
For Cartagena, the mission is partly personal. He wasn’t able to speak to his family in Puerto Rico until two-and-a-half weeks after the hurricane. A month after the storm, he knows his father is safe but still hasn’t been able to talk directly to him.
Cartagena is concerned about the rising death toll in Puerto Rico caused by the lack of access to the emergency 911 system, the lack of electricity to keep insulin refrigerated and the absence of safe drinking water.
“There’s going to be a lot of examination of how the response has been and how it could be done better. I’m sure the more we get on the ground there there might be other potential sources of redress,” he said.