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Law Review Symposium: Katrina's Wake

Sunday, June 15, 2008  
Posted by: Wayne Turner, '08
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Hon. Eric Washington, Chief Judge, D.C. Court of Appeals addressing the audience.

The Law Review of the University of the District of Columbia hosted its annual symposium on February 29, 2008, Katrina’s Wake: Emergency Preparedness and Response from the Bayou to the Beltway.  The Symposium featured leading scholars, advocates, and public officials who examined the parallel racial and economic disparities in New Orleans and the District of Columbia.  Topic areas included the administration of justice, addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, and accountability in disaster planning and relief spending.

Prof. Susan Waysdorf opened the Symposium with an overview of Katrina relief efforts and the enduring impact of the disaster on the Gulf Coast area’s most vulnerable residents.  Prof. Waysdorf spent her spring sabbatical in New Orleans assisting Katrina survivors.  She was followed by Zack Rosenburg, a D.C. attorney who moved to New Orleans and founded the St. Bernard Project, where volunteers rebuild damaged homes of low-income residents.

Eric Balaban, from the ACLU’s National Prison Project, provided a moving account of the continuing horrific conditions in Louisiana jails, as well as the struggle for survival by many incarcerated persons who were abandoned by prison officials as the flood waters filled their cells.  Prof. Josephine Ross from Howard University Law School outlined her work in the post-Katrina administration of justice.  Miles Swanson, a DCSL graduate, presented his first hand account representing forgotten prisoners with the Pro Bono Project.

Alice S. Fisher, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, US Dept. of Justice and Chair, Katrina Fraud Task Force, began the second session describing efforts to combat fraud and abuse of disaster relief funds.  She was followed by Scott Amey, General Counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, who issued a hard-hitting report on government contracting abuses in which tens of millions of federal funds intended to help hurricane victims was misspent or stolen.  Ms. Fisher vowed to step up efforts to investigate and prosecute contracting fraud.

At left, from left, Dr. Patricia Hawkins of the Whitman Walker Clinic, Lydia Williams, D.C. Office of Long Term Care Ombudsman, The Hon. S. Pamela Gray, Magistrate Judge, D.C. Superior Court, Darrell L. Darnell, D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, Prof. Stephanie Brown. At right: Miles Swanson, ‘05, Prof. Josephine Ross and Eric Balaban.

Panelists then turned to the direct effects on vulnerable populations.  Daria Neal, Senior Counsel of Environmental Justice Project, Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, discussed her recent report on the continuing environmental devastation in the Gulf Coast region and its disparate impact on low income communities of color.  Kristen Clarke, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund outlined the ongoing challenges with voting and democracy for displaced Gulf Coast residents.

The Hon. Ernestine Steward Gray, Judge, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court delivered the lunchtime keynote address.  A renowned advocate for children, Judge Gray described the turmoil following Hurricane Katrina and the challenges of locating hundreds of children in foster care who had been evacuated from the city.

The afternoon session began with a lively discussion led by Chief Judge Eric T. Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals, who outlined planning efforts underway in the District of Columbia to operate the court system in the event of a disaster.  Julia Leighton, General Counsel for the D.C. Public Defender Service, highlighted the deficiencies in emergency planning, particularly for the solo-practice legal service providers, who provide the bulk of representation to indigent clients and have yet to be integrated into emergency response contingencies.  Patricia Mullahy Fugere, the Executive Director of Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, described efforts of a working group including major law firms to draft practice manuals on areas of law crucial in the wake of a disaster.

At left: Hon. Eric Washington, Chief Judge, D.C. Court of Appeals.  At right: Daria E. Neal, Senior Counsel, Environmental Justice Project, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Kristen Clarke, Esq., NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Scott H. Amey, General Counsel, Project on Government Oversight, Alice S. Fisher, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, US Dept. of Justice, Chair, Katrina Fraud Task Force, Prof. Laurie Morin.

The final session highlighted the District’s most vulnerable populations, including nursing home residents, children in foster care, and people living with HIV and AIDS.  Lydia Williams, with the D.C. Office of Long Term Care Ombudsman described the lack of training among nursing home staff to evacuate residents. The Hon. S. Pamela Gray, Magistrate Judge, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, lauded the improvements in DC’s troubled Child and Family Services Agency, and the challenges for tracking children in foster care following an emergency.  Dr. Patricia Hawkins, Associate Executive Director, Whitman Walker Clinic, described in detail her organization’s efforts to respond to emergencies, including residents displaced by Katrina, the anthrax attack in DC, and Hurricane Isabel, where people with HIV/AIDS faced unique challenges, such as the disruption of their strict medication regimes.  The head of DC’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, Darrell L. Darnell, promised to work more closely with the non-profit provider community in emergency planning efforts.

Last year, UDC-DCSL students, faculty, and administrators traveled to Louisiana and worked in a variety of capacities on behalf of Katrina survivors with local organizations.  They conducted succession research to assisting survivors with insurance claims on their homes; provided assistance to the New Orleans Public Defenders Office resulting in the release of dozens of accused who had served more time than if they had been convicted; assisted exploited Latino day laborers to understand their rights and receive payment; and helped rebuild a home.

In December 2007, the Pro Bono Project of the Greater New Orleans Area named UDC-DCSL its "Law School of the Year," and faculty members were honored by the Louisiana State Supreme Court.

During the Symposium, the UDC-DCSL Law Review also hosted a photograph display from the Kid Camera Project, a New Orleans-based non-profit that was created to address the psychological and emotional impacts of Hurricane Katrina on children returning home to New Orleans.  Through the use of photography, children from flooded neighborhoods express themselves through poignant photographs that tell their story of survival.  For more information visit

The Law Review edition featuring excerpts from the symposium and articles is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2008.
Melissa Mathu, DCSL Law Review; Zack Rosenburg, Director and Co-Founder, St. Bernard Project; and Law Review students Jenny Fein, Sam Kanupp, and Will Burns.

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