WASHINGTON - On the occasion of the National Bar Association’s 85th Annual Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law released “Five Years of Commitment: Providing Legal Assistance in the Gulf Post Katrina.” The report details the organization’s commitment to low-income and minority communities disproportionately affected in both Louisiana and Mississippi following the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.
“Within two weeks of the hurricane slamming ashore on August 29, 2005, a Lawyers' Committee staff attorney was on-site in the Gulf Coast assisting clients,” said Lawyers’ Committee Executive Director Barbara Arnwine. “Within a month we partnered with our Mississippi affiliate, the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ), and formed the Disaster Survivors Legal Assistance Initiative and 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 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” Ms. Arnwine added. “Between 2005 and 2009, law firms contributed 34,856 pro bono hours valued at $16,121,000."
The immediate focus of the Lawyers’ Committee’s 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 landmark McWaters v. FEMA case, forcing FEMA to improve and continue providing housing assistance to tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims.
Since 2005, the Lawyers’ Committee, MCJ, key board members serving on a Gulf Coast Task Force and scores of legal volunteers have supported a wide array of housing and community economic development initiatives and engaged aggressively in fair housing advocacy and litigation.
The needs in the region are still great, some further impacted by the Deepwater Horizon environmental catastrophe. In assessing the region’s continuing needs, Lawyers’ Committee staff have met with over 40 community organizations in Louisiana and Mississippi, many of which we have worked with since the Initiative was launched.
Outreach, including a weeklong visit to the Gulf Coast in April and three days in New Orleans in June, revealed significant barriers to affordable and fair housing opportunities which continue to exist, requiring both transactional and litigation assistance. In fact, local groups specifically identified an unmet need for legal assistance for community organizations engaged in affordable housing development and advocacy. A number of issues identified require particularly urgent and focused attention which local civil rights and legal services attorneys emphasized presently overwhelm their current capacity to address.
“The Lawyers’ Committee remains committed to fighting for racial justice and ongoing recovery efforts,” said Ms. Arnwine. “In addition to addressing issues of adequate housing, ongoing efforts, as detailed in the report, include collaborative title clearing for homeowners and nonprofits, organizational capacity and nonprofit restructuring, affordable housing development, community land trusts, port expansion and much more.”
About the Lawyers’ Committee
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and fair lending, community development, employment discrimination, voting, education and environmental justice.