In Yale’s latest response to Hurricane Katrina, the Law School hosted a panel discussion Thursday night focusing on the legal implications of the disaster and ways law students could help evacuees of the Gulf Coast.
The panelists, including Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Clinton administration, assailed the federal government for its response to the hurricane and the massive flooding in New Orleans that followed. About 100 students and community members attended the forum, where panelists discussed the short- and long-term effects of the disaster.
Koh, who worked at the State Department during the Kosovo humanitarian crisis, was harshly critical of the Bush administration’s response to Katrina.
“You’d always assume if such a crisis occurred in the United States we would be able to tap into our national expertise in displacement more quickly and effectively,” Koh said in an interview before the panel.
Henry Fernandez LAW ’94, a former economic development administrator for the city of New Haven and currently a principal of Fernandez Advisors, LLC, was even more forceful in his condemnation of the response. He said the federal government’s “unlimited resources were held back.”
“From the beginning the federal response was spin,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said the problem goes deeper into the organization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, led by embattled director Michael Brown.
“The next few guys in line [at FEMA] also have no disaster experience,” Fernandez said. “They were, like Director Brown, political hacks.”
President George W. Bush and Republican elected officials in some of the areas impacted by the hurricane have consistently defended Brown and top FEMA officials. The response by local and state officials has also come under fire from some quarters.
The panel discussion was not limited to criticism. Elinor Sutton LAW ’07, who lived and worked in New Orleans as part of the Teach for America program, discussed pre-hurricane life in the Big Easy. She recalled living with the knowledge of what a hurricane could do to New Orleans.
“Nobody who has lived in New Orleans is surprised,” Sutton said. “It was an accepted part of being there.”
Paul Sullivan, chief executive of Connecticut Blood Services, a branch of the American Red Cross, emphasized the continued need for assistance in the recovery efforts. Other speakers at the panel included law professor Carol Rose; visiting law professor Douglas Kysar; Michele Barry, director of the Office of International Health at the School of Medicine; and Marilyn Drees, the Law School’s director of student life.
The Law School has organized several ways for students to help. Beginning this morning, the school will set out boxes for collecting toiletries. There is also a fund-raising competition between each of the three law classes, for which organizers hope each student will donate at least $10, which would be matched by the University. In addition, GYPCY, a bar frequented by many graduate and professional students, will hold a Latin dance party Sept. 16, with proceeds going to benefit relief efforts.
The Law School has been in contact with the American Bar Association to try to help by representing those recently arrested in the chaos following the hurricane.
“It was comforting to hear they were dealing with representation for [indigent defendants],” said Akil Hollis LAW ’08, whose wife’s family is from New Orleans.
The audience’s response to the panel seemed to be enthusiastic.
“It showed the great deal of expertise Yale can bring to bear in a crisis,” Adam Goldfarb ’02 SOM ’05 LAW ’08 said. “I was very impressed.”
Richard Re LAW ’08, a New Orleans native and one of the organizers of the student response, has been pleased with the Law School’s relief efforts in recent days.
“I was initially frustrated at the University’s reaction, but this week has been everything I could have hoped for,” he said.