As the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, legal needs in the Gulf Coast remain pressing. FEMA recently closed the trailer parks where thousands of displaced residents were housed, leaving many with nowhere to go. Homelessness in New Orleans is estimated to have doubled since Katrina hit. Residents with homes face roadblocks trying to get insurance money or government grants for housing recovery.
Helping local legal aid organizations meet this overwhelming demand is the goal of The Student Hurricane Network (SHN), a national association of law students dedicated to providing long-term assistance to communities affected by Hurricane Katrina. SHN recently launched a new site on probono.net to recruit and support volunteers and keep in touch with SHN alumni currently at www.probono.net/shn.
SHN, which is entirely student-run, works with law students and administrators from across the country to create and coordinate volunteer opportunities for law students in the Gulf Coast. Approximately 4,000 law students have spent a winter or spring break in the region over the past three years, working with non-profit legal service providers in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
SHN was started in 2005 by a group of law students who wanted to help in the aftermath of Katrina, according to Sarah Erlinder, a 3rd year at University of Wisconsin Law School and a member of SHN’s National Advisory Board. The first SHN trip took place during winter break in 2005, and trips have been run every winter and spring since then.
The organization recruits students through outreach at law schools in its network, which now numbers about 110 schools. Liaisons at each school promote the program and help coordinate fundraising for the trips.
Despite the time that’s passed since Katrina hit, “there’s absolutely this need and this opportunity for students to serve and work with organizations on the ground,” Erlinder said.
During the 2008 spring break trip, students worked with residents of the soon-to-close FEMA trailer camps to help gather information about their needs and, if necessary, direct them to legal services. In addition, “we had students trained to do income taxes so residents could take advantage of the economic stimulus money,” Erlinder said.
“SHN students are an invaluable asset to our attorneys,” said Jauna Crear, Pro Bono Counsel at New Orleans Legal Assistance. “Legal aid service delivery is a volume game, and SHN students significantly increase the volume of clients we can service by providing legal research, interviewing clients, returning phone calls, drafting documents, and so much more! The students are only here for a week, but you’d be quite surprised at how much they can accomplish in that time.”
Students who’ve participated in trips also speak highly of the experience. “I really wasn’t one hundred percent sold on law school until I went down to New Orleans,” said Diane Arrue, a 3rd year at St. John’s University School of Law who’s done two trips with SHN. She spent her first trip working with inmates at Orleans Parish Prison. “It was the most amazing feeling to be able to help those men out and to learn from attorneys that really cared about their clients,” she said.
Elizabeth Gonzalez, a 3rd-year at USC Law School who’s also done two SHN trips, said her experience reinforced her desire to stay involved in public service or pro bono work after she graduates. She chose to spend this summer working at Loeb & Loeb LLP in part because they emphasize community involvement. “When I was looking at firms I was looking at their pro bono programs,” she said.
The desire to stay in touch with SHN alumni like Diane and Elizabeth is one reason the organization decided to use the Pro Bono Net platform. Communications functionality such as listservs and mailings tools will be very helpful for reaching out to SHN’s widely dispersed membership. As a student-run organization, SHN also does not have a lot of administrative capacity. The functionality and “built-in tech support” offered by Pro Bono Net were important, Erlinder said. “We liked the ethos and the other organizations Pro Bono Net supports,” she added.
Erlinder sees the SHN experience as a way to impress upon her fellow law students the importance of public service and pro bono work as they begin their legal careers. A lot of students “are coming from a very different place from what they’re seeing down here,” she said. “My hope is it will at least open their eyes a little bit.”