Opening Statements

Disaster’s Disciples

Posted Aug 1, 2008 8:00 AM CDT
By Arin Greenwood

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About a week after Rob Verchick began teaching his fall 2005 environmental law course at Loyola University New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina hit.

Before he knew it, he found himself relocated and on the cutting edge of a new legal field.

“We went through the environmental law book but talked every week about Katrina,” say Verchick, who, along with his class, had been moved to Hous­ton. “There was a lot to talk about.”

Their talk touched upon the numerous and varied post-Katrina legal issues that had affected all of their lives but that none of them had thought to connect: insurance, public benefits, civil rights, domestic re­lations, probate, indigence. But the more Verchick and his class talked, the more he realized they had inadvertently put themselves on the leading edge of the burgeoning area of disaster law.

In the three years after Katrina, a handful of law schools around the country have begun offering disaster law courses and clinics, studying the ways people are harmed by—and the ways the legal system addresses—natural disasters. The publication of several new legal texts in the field is spurring even more interest.

Laurie Morin, who has taught disaster law at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, likens post-Katrina awareness to that of the Vietnam War era, when she and her peers were inspired to become politically active by the social unrest that surrounded them.

“There really hasn’t been a period like that since,” she says. “No movements, no mass demonstrations. Hurricane Katrina came along and changed all that.”

Before Katrina, Morin says, most students hadn’t been exposed to discrimination and hadn’t realized that civil rights work was still relevant and necessary. Katrina was the “disorienting moment” that threw the students’ previous ideas about the world out of whack, she says, and allowed them to view starkly how disasters can affect vulnerable populations. Many also came to realize that Katrina brought to light the dire circumstances these communities were already facing before the storm.

Morin and Verchick have seen no letup in stu­dent interest in disaster law. And while neither is hoping for another Katrina anytime soon, both say they would like to see their students take what they learn in the classroom and put it to good use in the real world.

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