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Disaster relief compared: Sri Lanka and New Orleans

Andrew Wood [University of Pittsburgh School of Law 1L, in New Orleans]: "Exactly one year ago I was in the southeastern Sri Lankan village of Kirinda wrapping up a three month stint of relief work following the Asian tsunami. Now, as I reflect from New Orleans in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina, I cannot help but compare the two situations.

Though two completely different worlds, some of the problems that the relief and clean-up efforts face are remarkably similar. In Sri Lanka and other developing nations in which international relief efforts are staged, liberal spending by governments and large organizations accomplishes incredible amounts of good, but also results in stories of corruption, an imbalance of the local economy, some people being taking advantage of, and others doing the taking. As in Sri Lanka, everyone I talk to in New Orleans seems to be frustrated with the government and has a story — or at least a theory — regarding corruption at various levels. In Sri Lanka the government has been trying to prevent people from building homes too close to the coastline for the safety of the people. But if you ask any local fisherman, you would most likely hear an opinion that the government just wants to build resorts on the beach and make money. In the U.S., you need only to open a newspaper to read of frustrations regarding the government's handling of the situation following Hurricane Katrina [continuing coverage on JURIST].

Another similarity is the indiscriminate nature of each respective disaster. In every tsunami- or hurricane-affected area, stores, restaurants, resorts, schools, places of worship, rich, poor — everyone was affected. Photos from Phuket show locals and foreigners running side by side - the tsunami's victims ranged from a Thai prince to the poorest peasant and the damage stretched through a multitude of countries. Likewise, Katrina affected the rich and the poor; it was oblivious to race, religion, wealth or status. In New Orleans the 9th Ward, one of the poorer areas of the city, was devastated and is still uninhabitable. Wealthy areas with million dollar homes such as Bellaire are also empty.

This week I have been assigned to work with New Orleans Legal Assistance (NOLAC) along with Elizabeth Seitz and Candace Stockney, two fellow Pitt Law students who were awesome to work with for the week. We have each been assisting lawyers with their overwhelming caseloads. I have spent most of the week helping Laura Tuggle, a talented NOLAC attorney in charge of clients with housing issues. There is, of course, no shortage of clients, and I have been assisting by writing appeal letters on behalf of those clients to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

From my perspective, one of the biggest similarities is the role I've been able to play in assisting in relief efforts. It is certainly a humbling experience to be faced with this unprecedented and massive challenge, and it is easy to feel as though a small personal effort is insignificant. And it is only natural to come into a situation like this wanting to make a difference — to change the world in some small way. As my week at NOLAC comes to a close, I find myself wondering, "Did I make a difference? Does the relatively small amount of work I did really chip away at the block? Was I able to demonstrate to the attorneys and their clients that I assisted in New Orleans that people around the country care about this plight, and want to pitch in?" These are the same questions I asked myself a year ago after the tsunami in Sri Lanka, where my work focused on the rebuilding of fishing boats and therefore the livelihood of villagers. And I am still asking the same questions; today some people complain that a problem in Sri Lanka is that there are more small off-shore boats than before the tsunami and over-fishing is becoming a problem. Did I help individuals in a village, or contribute to a problem? Did my week of assistance in New Orleans do anything to help?

I don't think there are any easy answers to these questions, and there may be a bit of truth no matter how each is answered. But I would like to think the answer is "yes," that I did help in some small way. I console myself with clichés like "every little bit makes a difference." And I truly believe that there is power in numbers.

I have been extremely impressed by the Student Hurricane Network, and how this student-run organization has facilitated the involvement of hundreds of law students that are willing to help. Now that I am preparing to return to my first year law classes in Pittsburgh, I hope that knowledge of the involvement of the Student Hurricane Network will continue to chip away at the massive amount of work, and help to further the awareness of the needs in New Orleans and the other affected Gulf Coast areas."

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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Professional Commentary is JURIST's platform for newsmakers, activists and legal experts to comment on national and international legal developments.

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