|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JULY 2008|
Volunteering in New Orleans
By Sally Carter
For me, as for many, the image of New Orleans has always had a patina of magic, springing from the city’s colorful history, celebrated food and music, and willingness to enjoy life. After Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, I watched in shock the unfolding of the natural disaster and the government’s inadequate relief efforts.
Two televised scenes, both from the Friday after Katrina, stand out in my mind. One is a law enforcement officer on duty somewhere in the Gulf Coast, looking at the camera and asking desperately, "Where is the government?" The other is a nurse, finally rescued after being trapped for several days at a New Orleans hospital, saying, "I stopped believing anyone was coming."
I sent money for disaster relief, and I followed the stories in the coming months and years about the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere. I wished I could do more. Then, in a recent serendipitous internet moment, I discovered that the Supreme Court of Louisiana has a special dispensation in place to allow out-of-state attorneys to volunteer hurricane-related civil legal services for low-income clients of pro bono and legal services agencies.
I contacted Sandie McCarthy-Brown, the volunteer coordinator at The Pro Bono Project in New Orleans, and learned the organization enthusiastically welcomes assistance from out-of-state attorneys. She sent me information on the fairly straightforward procedure for obtaining permission from the state supreme court.
The Project is in the Central Business District section of the city, close to the French Quarter. I realized I could easily combine helping rebuild New Orleans and enjoying the magic of the city. I booked a hotel that would be convenient to The Project’s office during the day and Preservation Hall and other attractions of the French Quarter after work. I found the online link to WWOZ, the city’s community radio station, and started listening, to get into a New Orleans state of mind.
Meanwhile, I read the legal materials The Project e-mailed me. Of the areas of law in which The Project needed volunteer help, I had chosen what in Louisiana is called successions law. Since I’ve practiced only as a prosecutor and a government labor and employment lawyer, reading Louisiana law on wills, estates, and community property called into being a new neural network in my brain.
When I arrived at The Project on May 12, 2008, I met first with my supervising attorney, Chris Coty, The Project’s specialist in successions law. Coty talked me through the basics of what I would spend most of my time doing: drafting affidavits of jurisdiction, death and heirship in Road Home cases. The Road Home is the program set up by the state of Louisiana to pass on federal funds for helping rebuild homes damaged by Hurricanes Rita or Katrina.
I dealt mostly with cases in which the owner or owners of a home died intestate some time ago and no succession was done, so the title to the house did not pass on properly. Heirs kept living in the home without any problem until, post-hurricane, they needed to prove ownership. The affidavits I drafted set out the lines of inheritance for such family homes, often tracing three generations of descent and sometimes more.
The need for the legal work struck me most forcibly when I spoke on the phone with clients and their relatives. Often I called because I had questions about how the family trees were shaped. Many people were hard to contact. Some were living with relatives, and some were in FEMA trailers. Some were stranded in other states and longed to come home.
They were all eager to talk to me, no matter how odd some of my law-related questions must have seemed. Knowing that each affidavit completed was a significant step forward in returning a client to the family home, I worked to complete as many as I could in the week I was there. Yet so great is the need for legal help that on Friday afternoon I had to hand many cases back, untouched, to Chris.
I spoke with Rachel Piercey, the executive director of The Project, and she foresees that the need for indigent legal services specific to problems arising out of the 2005 hurricanes will continue for years. She is hopeful that the Louisiana Supreme Court will extend the order for out-of-state attorneys beyond its current expiration date of Dec. 31, 2008.
For now, The Project continues to welcome volunteers. As a non-profit organization that must constantly fundraise, it also welcomes financial contributions. The Pro Bono Project can be reached through its website at www.probono-no.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sally Carter is an assistant general in the labor and employment section of the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ). This article does not reflect the views or opinions of the DOJ.
© 2008 Sally Carter