Since Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, University of Maryland School of Law students have traveled to the region repeatedly, working to rebuild homes and provide volunteer legal services.
On Feb. 5, the students of the Maryland Katrina and Indigent Defense Project and Professor Doug Colbert were recognized for this efforts with UMB's annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Diversity Recognition Award for achievements by a student group. The recipients serve as a model for the entire campus of the personal and professional commitment to the ideals epitomized by the life and work of Dr. King.
View a video of the Award Presentation (Real Player required).
The January 2008 trip was the fifth time students from the law school had traveled to the region. Working in Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans, La., 77 Maryland Law students offered essential relief services that ran the gamut from courtroom representation and to home restoration. The students were accompanied by Professor Doug Colbert and Maryland Law alumni James K. Archibald, of Venable, and Matthew G. Hjortsberg, of Bowie & Jensen.
Students in Biloxi worked for the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Catholic Diocese. In one instance, they helped a disabled man living in a FEMA trailer that, in addition to having mold and formaldehyde problems, was not handicap accessible. The students helped him apply for a new trailer that would conform to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and they put his form at the top of the pile. "You have given me hope that things will get better," the man said.
Other students in Biloxi worked directly with homeowners to help rebuild their homes. The Catholic Diocese provided furnishings, and the students provided elbow grease and muscle, cleaning up one woman’s storm-ravaged home and bringing in donated furniture. The students said that receiving the woman’s gratitude was the most rewarding part of the undertaking. Standing in front of her newly restored house, the women said, "I will never forget the students from Maryland Law."
In New Orleans, students helped at Public Defender offices in Baton Rouge and Orleans Parish, working to clear an overwhelming backlog of pending cases. One public defender was struggling with more than 850 unsettled matters. The students went to the local prison and interviewed dozens of inmates many of whom had been waiting months to speak with a lawyer for the first time. Most of the inmates had been incarcerated after failing to make bail for minor crimes. With the judge’s permission, the students then argued for bail reductions in court and succeeding in having many of the clients released pending trial.
Nationally, more than 3,200 law students have volunteered to help with the recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Maryland Law has been at the forefront of this effort, sending more than 150 students since the storm occurred.
"There is a legacy now," said Dean Karen H. Rothenberg, "and I can’t begin to express how proud we are."
The students said their experiences had taught them about humanity and made them appreciate the value of serving people in need. Many hope to sustain that spirit of service back in Maryland. "I hope that going forward, we can continue to make a difference not just in the Gulf Coast, but in Baltimore," said Alicia H. Welch, the coordinator of the project.
The students also expressed their gratitude to Professor Colbert, calling him "a teacher, and a leader, and a friend."
Click here to see and hear the leaders of the Katrina Project discuss their motivation for donating so much of their time.
Read the blog kept by students during their trip.
Listen to students discussing their work on WBAL-TV.
Read articles in the Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore Examiner about the students' efforts.