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"A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste"

Posted By Lorin Kline, Mar 25, 2008

Yesterday we were introduced to the organization we will be working with, the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ). I was truly impressed by the organization, the work that they do, and the people that run it. As an aspiring public interest lawyer, I felt inspired, which was a nice contrast to the disgust and frustration I had felt up to that point in seeing what is going still happening on the gulf coast.

After touring the destruction, my only thought was,"Where do we go from here? What do you do with such a crisis?" MCJ helped me to find some answers.

We were introduced to MCJ by their team of compelling attorneys. Their attitude and their wonderful accomplishments were truly motivating. They were telling us the story of how MCJ got started, and they recounted the conversation they had immediately following Katrina. They said their organization's founding mother, Martha, sat them all down and asked them a question. It wasn't, "What is the greatest need?", "What should we do?", or "Where do we go from here?". Instead she had them close their eyes and imagine what they wanted newspaper headlines on the gulf coast to look like in two years. Then, with that goal in mind, they moved forward. I was very impressed by this approach. When you are hit by one of the biggest catastrophe's in our country's history, I can imagine how easy it would be to get hung up on the details, lost in them even, and become totally overwhelmed by the situation at hand. But instead, these attorneys were able to focus on the most ideal end. And they continue to work toward it today.

One of the attorneys, in describing what MCJ does, said that they have a "cross-pollination" of direct services and policy work that enables them to achieve the greatest change. After doing so much thinking lately about how to be that perfect public interest lawyer, hearing him speak was so refreshing. He spoke about his family and how much he loves his work. Another one of the attorneys will be giving an oral argument tomorrow in front of the Mississippi Supreme Court to argue a landmark case about price gouging, the first of its kind since Katrina. Each person at MCJ is doing something important. By simply starting with a dream of a headline two years down the road, these attorney's have managed to truly make a difference. I hope to approach my career with as positive an attitude and to make even a fraction of the impact they have made.

The Mississippi Center for Justice functions in conjunction with the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It is one of the oldest and most effective organizations in fighting for civil rights and was founded at the suggestion of President Kennedy. At MCJ they do all kinds of work from assisting people in cases of contractor fraud and eviction, to organizing community initiatives. We were also shown extensive aerial photographs of hurricane damage. We had learned the day before during our time volunteering at Restoration Point that many homes were hit by 35 foot waves, and the photos we saw illuminated the true extent of the damage. Giant casino barges were thrown entirely onto land, crushing everything in their path. You could also clearly see in the photographs, Gulfport's racial divide on either side of the railroad tracks. The waves went miles inland, hitting the rich and the poor sides of town indiscriminately. The more I see, the more and more shocked I am.

True to the way most of this trip is going, every time I think I understand the extent of this situation and that it couldn't get more complex and frustrating, it does. At MCJ, after getting our introduction, we split off into separate projects to work on for the week. I am working with the advocacy arm of a neighboring organization, Back Bay Mission, on some Housing Policy analysis. Even in the brief introduction that we were given to the housing policy research we would be doing, things got more, and more, and more COMPLICATED.

I mentioned that we saw pictures of all of the casino barges completely washed up onto land. What has happened since then, in Biloxi and all over the gulf coast, is that the casinos have come back in full force. The way the story was told to us was that "the legislators went in their pajamas to get the casinos on land". Within 8 days of the hurricane, legislation was passed to allow casinos to build on land, whereas before they were only allowed to be on water. The speed is truly remarkable when you consider how slowly everything else seems to go down here. Coming from Nevada, where gaming is such a big industry that really fuels the state's economy, it was really interesting to hear how the casinos are tearing these communities down. Rather than recreating the jobs that existed before the hurricane, a huge amount of lower-paying service jobs have come in their place. Since the casinos are providing so many jobs, little restrictions are placed upon them. And the casinos are covering lands where homes once stood. And unlike Nevada's gaming which brings in a lot of money from out of state, the Mississippi casinos just circulate the same money around. Money that could be helping put people back in their homes. It just perpetuates the problem of no money, no affordable housing, and nowhere for people to go. As our supervisor put it, many people saw this awful catastrophe as an opportunity to exploit and make money. To them, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

As it stands now the cost of living in Mississippi as a whole is 3% higher than the national average, with the annual salary 12% below. According to FEMA's most recent report, there are only 462 rental units available at fair market rate in the entire state of Mississippi. Unbelievable. And despite this decimation and struggle, people have still exploited the tragedy and tried to use it to their advantage. It has truly changed the face of recovery.

I think this raises some interesting questions about human nature in response to such a tragedy. While some are crushed and feel there is nothing they can do, others are inspired and motivated to lift their communities back up, and still others want to take selfish advantage. The casino developers saw the tragedy as a terrible thing to waste, and they are still riding the profits today. I think that the noble attorneys of MCJ also saw this crisis as a terrible thing to waste, but in an entirely different way. They saw the opportunity to make a difference, to stay in their communities and lift them back up, and to fight against injustices that existed even before the hurricane. Poverty and race issues were a problem in Mississippi long before Katrina came raging through, and the hurricane was an opportunity to bring attention to the problems and put force behind solving them. So even for those fighting the noble fight, the crisis is still a terrible thing to waste.