I hold governments accountable during a disaster.
It started with Hurricane Katrina. Back then I was a Law Professor in Houston, a city that took in 125,000 people from New Orleans and other storm struck communities across the Gulf Coast. I became what you might call an “unaffiliated volunteer,” meaning that I showed up at the shelters to do what needed to be done.
Three weeks in, about 8:00 at night, someone with a badge and a bull-horn announced that doors would lock at noon the next day. The shelter was closing, even though 20,000 people had no place to go.
I’m not sure how many took the official offer to board a bus to Arkansas, but my new friend, a six year old girl who still smiled with all her baby teeth, began to cry. She had never heard of that place, and kept pleading with her Grand-mama to go back home. Besides, where would her Auntie go, and her two cousins? They all lived together back in New Orleans, but what would happen now? No-one had an answer.
Until the next day.
I can’t recall exactly how, but I managed to find them a place to stay just outside the city. Dozens of calls to apartments, hotels, and shelters turned up nothing – everything was full. But then I reached a landlady who had just 2 apartments left, fully furnished, and close to school. None of us really understood what a FEMA voucher was, but I told her we had one, and that somehow, one-day, maybe, she’d get paid.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said, and handed us the keys.
“Disaster Law” wasn’t much of a concept back then, we just tackled whatever came up. But as it developed, so did I.
I now represent disaster survivors domestically and internationally. I push for policy changes in the US and abroad. I’ve collaborated with leading social justice and human rights organizations in Haiti, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa.
I finally figured out what a FEMA voucher is.
I am a disaster lawyer.
And I came to help.
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