University of Idaho College of Law Public Interest Law Group

Gulf Coast blog by Autumn T. Renshaw

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It’s very interesting being in the exact same place in New Orleans’ French Quarter a year later to the day. Things seem to be the exact same: tourists are everywhere, beads are being worn, and beignets are being consumed.

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However, what seems to be the most compelling is driving outside the French Quarter to where the most devastation occurred in the city, and the sameness and similarities to what I witnessed exactly one year ago:

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no vast improvements, no rebuilding, no new communities, just run down homes and open land.

Although it’s been one year for me, it’s been thirty months for the people affected by Katrina, and the only things that seem to be thriving and surviving for the ones hit most is the same tragic stories and the ongoing legal struggles with Housing and FEMA.

If my trip to New Orleans wasn’t eye-opening enough, our mission this current alternative spring break, is taking a further look right where the actual eye of the storm hit, and where the media failed to follow. This week I find myself in an even more deserted and more damaged city, the city of Biloxi, Mississippi working for the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ).

MCJ, a home-grown, nonprofit public interest law firm, opened its doors in June 2003, scoring a series of important victories furthering voting rights, securing threatened Medicaid coverage for 50,000 poverty-level aged and disabled Mississippians, and undertaking extensive work on educational and juvenile justice reform, and much more. In the immediate wake of the hurricane, MCJ recognized that rebuilding coastal Mississippi presented a unique opportunity to rectify persistent racial and economic inequities, but that this possibility would be lost without effective legal and policy advocacy on behalf of minority and low-income people and communities at every phase of the process. With the opening of our Katrina Recovery Office in Biloxi in October 2005, MCJ put our style of work – as “community lawyers” creating partnerships with and taking direction from community leaders – in service to Katrina survivors to achieve two goals:

1. To make Mississippi’s low-income housing recovery on the Gulf Coast a model of racial and economic justice by promoting affordable housing as a hallmark of the recovery process. An equitable recovery would advance home equity as a primary tool for low-income households to build wealth and would also provide for affordable rental housing. MCJ’s roles included providing systemic advocacy with the governmental and planning agencies whose decisions would determine the post-Katrina landscape and helping to meet individual legal needs in the areas of housing and consumer practices.

2. To build a post-Katrina legal delivery system that more nearly fulfills the promise of justice for all. The destruction wrought by the hurricane cast a spotlight on the historic inadequacies of Mississippi’s legal aid and pro bono delivery systems to meet an already overwhelming need, but it also produced an outpouring of generous offers of legal assistance from both in and out of state. MCJ continues to help develop an upgraded system that effectively matches needs with legal services.

My group’s supervisor and attorney, Crystal Utley, the staff attorney and the Pro Bono Coordinator is successful 28 year old public interest law attorney, and continues this plight in restoring the rights of the citizens of Biloxi and neighboring counties.

Even more pressing for those here in Biloxi is the issue of the FEMA trailers and the evictions that are going to begin taking place in the next four months. Because of the toxic mold, many have gotten sick, adults and children, and many more have yet to be diagnosed. Beyond that, many still do not have a place to live when the eviction does occur because many have received no financial help from the government or other agencies. Most of the cases we have seen in just the past 48 hour’s deals with insurance and contractor fraud that have progressed in the shadow of Katrina.

Instead of things being given to help restore their lives, the citizens of Biloxi as well as other areas affected by the storm, are continuing to get things taken away from them. It is beyond most people’s reality to even begin to understand what the survivors are still going through. For most around the country the tragedy of Katrina has left our mind and the news. I however, vow not to forget, and hope to continue beyond my second trip to the South in response to Katrina to make others more aware, and I hope perhaps to return again. Next time I do, I hope NOTHING will be the same.

If you would like to check out where we are working go to: http://www.mscenterforjustice.org

by Autumn T. Renshaw

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Written by jrdo410

March 12, 2008 at 7:14 pm

Posted in New Orleans/Biloxi

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