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Our Deep and Continuing Commitment to the Gulf Coast Region

August 4, 2010

The Lawyers’ Committee is proud to release Five Years of Commitment: Providing Legal Assistance in The Gulf Post Katrina.  Within days of the Hurricane slamming ashore on August 29, 2005, it was apparent that the impact of this devastating storm would fall disproportionally on low income and minority residents of the region.  Prior to the storm the Lawyers’ Committee had several clients in Mississippi and Louisiana, and long ties to the region.  Indeed, our first office opened in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964.  Within two weeks, a Lawyers’ Committee staff attorney was on site helping those clients.  Within a month we had partnered with our Mississippi affiliate the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ), and formed the Disaster Survivors Legal Assistance Initiative.  We also very quickly forged a strong partnership with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.  Through the Initiative, the Lawyers’ Committee has emerged as the leading national civil rights organization providing legal assistance to victims of the storm.

The immediate focus of our work was to support displaced homeowners and renters in obtaining assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Within two months of the storm, the Lawyers’ Committee brought the first challenge to the failed response of FEMA in the in the landmark McWaters vFEMA case.   This was a precedent setting case resulting in forcing FEMA to improve and continue providing, housing assistance to tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims. After the initial response, our primary focus has been and will continue to be affordable housing and community economic development.  The shortage of such housing that existed before the storm became a desperate one after the winds and water destroyed the homes of hundreds of thousands of people, a disproportionate number of whom were low income households.  Over the last five years we have maintained this strong focus.  Together with our Initiative partner, key Board members who selflessly have served on a Gulf Coast Task Force and provided critical guidance and support, and scores of legal volunteers, we have supported a wide array of housing and community economic development initiatives, and also engaged aggressively in fair housing advocacy and litigation. 

As indicated in the introduction to the report, “the number and value of the hours of pro bono work contributed by law firms to our Disaster Survivors Legal Assistance Initiative reflect the resources that the Lawyers’ Committee is able to bring to an effort like this.  Between 2005 and 2009, law firms contributed 34,856 hours valued at $16,121,000 to the Disaster Survivors Legal Assistance Initiative”. 

And the needs in the region are still great, even more so now in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon environmental catastrophe.  Our commitment remains strong and we will continue to support low income communities and communities of color in their fight for their rights, particularly their right to adequate housing. 

Over the next few weeks we will be highlighting our work in the region going forward.

Best,

Barbara Arnwine

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