Disaster and Opportunity in Post-Katrina Mississippi

November 7, 2007Duke Law News

November 15, 2007 — Two years after Hurricane Katrina, residents of coastal Mississippi are still struggling to recover, mired not only by the red tape of insurance claims and failed government promises, but also by the same political and social issues that were present before the storm.

Speaking at a luncheon event sponsored by the Program in Public Law at Duke Law School, Karen Lash, senior program counsel for Equal Justice Works and a consultant for the Mississippi Center for Justice, described “the disaster before the disaster” and its ongoing hindrance to rebuilding efforts.

“Pre-Katrina, Mississippi was at the bottom or almost at the bottom of the charts with respect to every indicator of social progress, whether it was health, wealth, literacy, or infant mortality,” Lash said. “You name it, they were at the bottom. And the forces that were in play pre-Katrina — that kept Mississippi last on all of those lists — didn’t get washed away with the hurricane.”

The ratio of legal aid attorneys to poor, elderly, or disabled individuals needing assistance in Mississippi was 1-to-19,000, Lash said. The national average, reported by the American Bar Association and thought to be an indictment, was 1-to-10,000. “There were four legal aid lawyers for the six coastal counties pre-Katrina,” she continued. Then the hurricane hit and brought with it a huge, new low-income population, overwhelming the already-stressed system.

Even with the immense devastation and pre-Katrina factors perpetuating issues of poverty and race, Mississippi residents were hopeful about the future.

“There was this optimism that FEMA was going to provide a safety net, the insurance companies were going to pay, debris would be removed, and communities would be rebuilt,” Lash said. “Congress had appropriated $5.4 billion to Mississippi to help with the recovery — specifically to help low- and moderate-income people to rebuild their homes.”

However, Mississippi’s government distributed the $5.4 billion in phases, Lash explained, and the people it was intended for have been last in line. Governor Haley Barbour, having previously sought four waivers on the requirement that a minimum of 50 percent of the federal money must be spent on low- and moderate-income people, is seeking a fifth waiver to redirect the remaining $600 million to expand a state port. Additionally, more than 50,000 people are still living in FEMA trailers, many facing eviction by their local governments.

Despite the ongoing struggles of Mississippi, Lash offered some good news. “I have never been so proud of the legal profession,” she said, citing the extraordinary national outpouring of offers of pro bono legal assistance that followed the hurricane.

Lash also praised students for their assistance during school breaks. “In addition to the obvious multiplying of our services that are so essential in the recovery process, I never want to overlook the morale boost they provided in an ongoing way to the folks who are doing this day in and day out,” she said.

Perhaps most exciting, Lash said is “this sense that maybe this time we can finish the unfinished work of the civil rights movement. There are two times in Mississippi history — during post-Civil War reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement — where there has been dramatic change in the state. Both times, it was where committed, passionate outsiders were working together with committed, passionate locals to make changes.”

“Maybe now we really are ready to reconcile our racist past,” she continued. “And maybe this time, in the rebuilding process, we can say, ‘Poverty is not an acceptable status quo.’”