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Lawyers jump in to help wave of Katrina evacuees

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Julie J. Darnieder, James M. Brennan, Tanner B. Kilander and Jessica A. Abbott (L to R) are among the lawyers who have jumped in to help Katrina evacuees navigate some of the legal challenges that they face. The Marquette Volunteer Legal Project has coordinated volunteer lawyer efforts at State Fair Park in Milwaukee where more than 250 evacuees are temporarily housed and an additional 300 people, who have found housing, go to seek services.

Photo by Tony Anderson

Wisconsin lawyers are stepping up to help Louisiana residents who have relocated to the Milwaukee area.

As hundreds of Hurricane Katrina evacuees begin trying to put their lives back together, they potentially face a variety of legal questions. The Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic is trying to help them find some of the answers they need.

Since Sept. 19, the clinic, which regularly provides assistance to low-income people through the House of Peace, has also coordinated volunteer efforts at State Fair Park. About 250 evacuees are temporarily being housed in dormitories at the fairgrounds and several hundred more, who have found housing offsite, return to access support services.

Variety of Issues

Volunteers have been approached with questions about guardianship of children whose parents cannot be located, how to go about filing for bankruptcy, or what to do about prior legal issues pending down in New Orleans.

Tanner B. Kilander is a Milwaukee attorney coordinating the clinic’s efforts at the fairgrounds. Kilander explained that as evacuees get settled and move beyond the initial aftermath of the hurricane, they begin to think about the broader spectrum of issues they are facing.

“Once you know how you are going to feed your kids and once you know where you are going to live, then you start to think: ‘What about all my bills that I’m not paying or that I can’t pay because there is no mail?’” she observed.

As the governor announced that Wisconsin would begin accepting evacuees, Jeff Brown, the State Bar of Wisconsin’s pro bono coordinator, realized that they would likely need legal assistance. Lawyers had already been contacting him wondering how they could help folks from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

“It’s hard to respond when they are 900 miles away, but it’s easier when they arrive in your backyard,” Brown said.

Volunteer Efforts

When word finally arrived that the state would help provide housing and a place for support services for more than 500 people at State Fair Park, Brown began looking for someone to help coordinate legal volunteer efforts in Milwaukee.

Brown talked with the Milwaukee Bar Association (MBA) and with Kilander, whose group has ties to Marquette University Law School and the Association for Women Lawyers. He was familiar with the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic’s efforts at the House of Peace community center.

“It seemed they were a logical group to go to in terms of commitment, interest and the ability to move quickly,” Brown said.

Within a week, Kilander and Julie J. Darnieder, who both head up the clinic, had set up a table and created a weekly schedule for volunteer efforts at the fairgrounds. The State Bar and MBA helped get information to members about the volunteer opportunity.

The clinic is open Monday through Thursday from 12:30 to 2 p.m. and from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Kilander has scheduled several lawyers for each shift to provide some depth of experience and support.

In addition to scheduling volunteers through mid-October, Kilander also has developed a call list of attorneys from different areas of practice who are willing to answer questions from volunteer lawyers.

“I think the response from the lawyers in the Milwaukee area has been fantastic,” Brown observed.

The volunteers never know what types of questions will arise.

Pending Cases

James M. Brennan, an attorney with Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, noted that people with ongoing legal issues in New Orleans have come to the clinic trying to figure out what to do and how to contact their attorneys. Adding to the problem is the fact that the lawyer’s offices and even the courthouse down there have been underwater.

“You have people with pending lawsuits with time limits running, whose attorney’s offices may now be in Baton Rouge or somewhere,” Brennan ob-served. “The dislocation of the legal system is shocking actually.”

Ongoing legal assistance will be needed. Both Brennan and Kilander acknowledged that the evacuees’ need for legal assistance will extend beyond the time when they move out of the dormitories and find housing. In fact, that may be a point when people find they have new problems that need to be addressed.

“I think the people who have moved into the community are likely to face unsatisfactory or maybe even predatory landlord-tenant relationships,” Brennan predicted. “They are likely to run into consumer relationships that are predatory or are exploiting their situation.”

Kilander acknowledged that they are currently at the front end of dealing with the legal issues hurricane survivors are facing.

“It’s going to become a matter of ongoing need,” she said. “I think we are doing pretty well to address the legal needs that people have today. But
in the months to come, the legal issues are going to kind of erupt.”

The clinic will continue to operate at the fairgrounds until at least the middle of October, which is a target date for placement of the remaining evacuees. What will actually happen remains up in the air, Kilander said, noting that ongoing services will be needed in some form.

In the meantime, she will continue to gather the names of lawyers willing to volunteer their services or willing to be on a call list to assist when questions arise.

“I would encourage people who want to volunteer to continue to contact me,” Kilander said. “Although eventually we will stop having this help desk here twice a day, there’s going to be an ongoing need for volunteers to assist evacuees in dealing with their legal matters.”

Tony Anderson can be reached by email.

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