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Don't Forget

Posted By Ji-Hyun, Mar 29, 2008

HALO members posing in front of Mississippi Center for JusticeWe’re on our way home and I’m leaving MS with numerous mixed emotions. I can’t stress enough that nothing prepares you to see the Gulf Coast, year 3 of post-Katrina. Reilly took us down a street in Biloxi the other day where every single lot was empty. The entire neighborhood was gone. The storm could have happened last week. People in MS will tell you that time moves differently on the Gulf Coast, there was life before Katrina and now there’s life post-Katrina. There are so many details and reasons why life is different after Katrina, and it invades every moment of the day. Everyday is a struggle for people trying to piece back together their lives and return to “normal”.

All week long, my group helped Crystal go through her hundreds of clinical cases, and often times I had to be the bearer of bad news to say that MCJ unfortunately could not help them. MCJ told us that the number of people that attend their open clinics is burgeoning, which is indicative of a crisis that is far from over. Sometimes, when I told people we could not help them, I was treated with anger. “The government can’t help me, you can’t help me, who will?” I’m still not sure.

On the other hand, the majority of people I called were grateful that we even got back to them. For the people that MCJ had the resources to help, you could feel raw hope emanating over the phone.

I’m angry about injustices (see post below), and how Katrina sharpened the divide between the rich and the poor. Even the divide between the rich and the middle-class.

I feel guilty because I’ll go home and my life will return to “normal” but every day people on the Gulf Coast will continue live in their post-Katrina world.

I’m inspired by the people and the organizations we worked with in MS. MCJ has helped so many people obtain the resources to rebuild the home, prevent people from losing their homes, receive assistance to pay for rent, or receive unemployment they deserve. I felt emotionally drained after one week of talking to Katrina victims, so I have enormous admiration for everyone at MCJ that works with victims everyday.

I’m disappointed that I could not do anything to help every single person I talked to. But I realized that for the people that the amazing public interest and pro bono attorneys working in the Gulf Coast can help, that lawyers really do have a duty to help people. Lawyers have the ability and knowledge to use the law, and other people don’t. It’s not fair that just because one person has money, they are allowed to have a hugely disproportionate access to the law. Many people are denied assistance, and there’s nothing they can do to appeal, since they were “correctly” denied assistance under the guidelines. Even though there may be no legal action, FEMA was arbitrary, inconsistent and unfair in disbursing aid.

Thank you, MCJ, Restoration Point, and every organization down there that is trying to fix the Gulf Coast. Thank you to everyone on HALO for making this trip happen. I know there were times when I wanted to give up, and I was cranky and tired from my personal problems at home. And thank you to my family and friends that emotionally and financially supported me every step of the way.

A woman that I talked to this week shared her very emotional story with me. She moved in with her ill mother before the storm, and their house was destroyed, their dogs were killed. After the storm, they moved into a FEMA trailer and were subsequently poisoned with formaldehyde. Her sick mother died in the hospital because they would not let the woman take her mother back to the noxious trailer. She told me, she has nothing and no one. If she disappeared no one would know. I think MS has disappeared, and no one knows. This is why the most important task that I, and the rest of HALO, are charged with, is to remember. I was explicitly told not to forget her story, and it is so important that I bring her story back to California with me. The knowledge of injustice is something we have to tell everyone. She told me to go home and hug my mother, and I will. She was so emotional and angry but so grateful that I listened to her story. Every day I will be thankful for my “normal” life and I will not forget the post-Katrina life that people will continue to deal with one minute at a time.

(PS - sorry I stole your pics Lorin and Aaron and thanks for letting me have em since my camera died.)