Mobilizing the Legal Corps in Puerto Rico

When disaster strikes, other professions have formalized organizations to assist with the response and recovery that follows. Physicians have Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and engineers have Engineers Without Borders. As a former disaster management professional and first responder, a career in law sometimes feels geographically limiting.

Lawyers are notoriously apt to stick within borders, and to a certain extent there are constraints to the portability in law. However, my humanitarian work overseas, and the implementation of Sphere Principles, was one of my first exposures to real-world implementation of international law, and one of the roads that eventually lead me to law school.

With the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, several law students at Columbia University wanted to assist with the efforts in their homeland. Karen Sloan reports,

The Columbia students have connected with lawyer groups in New York and Puerto Rico to share resources and begin training volunteers. Their primary partner in Puerto Rico is Mesa de Trabajo Acceso a la Justicia (the Access to Justice Roundtable), an organization of lawyers dedicated to promoting access to justice on the island. That group has already started training local lawyers to assist clients with Federal Emergency Management Agency claims, filing for unemployment, food stamps, housing assistance, and other bureaucratic tasks. Even before the storm, the island was short of lawyers to represent low-income clients, Martinez Llompart noted.

The Puerto Rican lawyers are also training to staff a local hotline where people can call for help, said Frances Collazo, the liaison between the Access to Justice Roundtable lawyers and the team behind the Legal Corps for Puerto Rico who is also a student at Interamerican University Puerto Rico School of Law—one of three law schools on the island.

In 2006, Neil Smith wrote in There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster,

It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster – causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.

Whatever the political tampering with science, the supposed “naturalness” of disasters here becomes an ideological camouflage for the social (and therefore preventable) dimensions of such disasters, covering for quite specific social interests.

The same environmental event in two different societies would have very different effects, if each of them were prepared and had mitigated their risks differently. The social structure of a society will largely determine the extent to which a population is affected by a disaster.

Along the same lines, during the recovery and response phases, there is often an immense need for sheer logistics, including navigating bureaucratic hurdles, or simply identifying existing resources and allocating them appropriately.

The Puerto Rico project is an example of how lawyers, both on the ground and abroad, can still contribute in numerous ways towards others who experience unexpected tragedies.

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