Legal clinic returns to earthquake-rattled Puerto Rico

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“In light of the lack of meaningful preparedness in Puerto Rico for the latest earthquakes — even after the harsh lessons of Maria — we can provide immediate, considerate and embedded expert recommendations through the partnerships that we have built with communities and caring leaders in Puerto Rico.”
Kim Diana Connolly, Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic
UB School of Law

BY SCHOOL OF LAW STAFF Republished from UB Now

Release date: January 29, 2020

A #UBLawResponds team of students and faculty are currently in Puerto Rico, continuing legal and policy work to support a resilient Puerto Rico as part of the fifth service-learning trip to the island by the School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic.

And for the first time, Spanish-speaking students from the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures have joined the UB legal team to provide cultural and language expertise.

The students, supported by a School of Law faculty member and staff attorney, left for the island on Jan. 18.

The original itinerary for the trip included extensive time in the rural areas of the island in need of resiliency planning support. But the recent earthquakes that struck Puerto Rico’s southern coast led to a last-minute shift in the itinerary, ensuring that earthquake response is a big part of the trip.

The clinic launched in November 2017 in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, which left thousands of Puerto Ricans in critical need of legal assistance. A #UBLawResponds team first visited the island in January 2018 in the aftermath of the hurricane and helped more than 80 residents file aid applications with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), formed humanitarian brigades, and met with top officials in the island’s justice system, including the solicitor general and the chief justice of Puerto Rico.

Since their initial trip, clinic students have made four other trips to the island to continue their work on resiliency issues related to access to food, energy and information. The current visit, which had been planned for several months, includes meetings with existing clients and community partners.

In addition, the #UBLawResponds team is presenting an initial draft of a post-disaster resilience white paper, providing recommendations for meaningful, community-based resiliency initiatives to help Puerto Ricans who are most vulnerable to catastrophic disasters.

Two Spanish-fluent graduate students from the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, College of Arts and Sciences, are assisting the legal team by using their knowledge of cultural practices and traditions to show respect for the dignity of local communities, improve communication and logistics, encourage culturally competent decision-making, and fully inform approaches to policy.

“The Department of Romance Languages and Literatures is committed to sharing the cultural competence that is part of its DNA,” says Amy C. Graves Monroe, associate professor and interim chair of the department. “This interdisciplinary partnership helps build resilience and fosters social justice — we believe our work engages and empowers local communities to meet new challenges like the one we face again today.

“We are proud to join the efforts to help during a new emergency, but believe that the work also continues during the times that do not make the headlines,” Graves Monroe says. “We will be there for those who need us so that the leap-frogging from crisis to crisis comes to an end at last.”

The #UBLawResponds team is dedicated to complementing existing local work and adding legal and policy bandwidth to help strengthen preparedness, response and recovery in the face of growing threats posed by a changing climate and extreme weather. Prior to their departure, students learned new areas of law and policy to help them address the island’s current needs. They explored earthquake response literature and approaches to post-disaster, short-term action support and worked with local partners in Puerto Rico to prepare to be in the best position to serve.

“Since before our first trip to Puerto Rico in January 2018, we knew our job was to provide service that would respond to genuine community needs, focused on the plight of the most vulnerable,” Kim Diana Connolly, professor of law, vice dean for advocacy and experiential learning, and director of the clinic, said before leaving for Puerto Rico. “In light of the lack of meaningful preparedness in Puerto Rico for the latest earthquakes — even after the harsh lessons of Maria — we can provide immediate, considerate and embedded expert recommendations through the partnerships that we have built with communities and caring leaders in Puerto Rico.

“We have students who have prepared, steeped themselves in the work of past participants, and are ready to provide legal and policy expertise this month.”

Law Dean Aviva Abramovsky notes that the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic “demonstrates what sets our students apart.”

“UB law students are compassionate, bold, and responsive,” Abramovsky says. “They understand their responsibility as future lawyers and leaders to use their skill and expertise to ensure access to justice and to provide help where it’s needed most.”

As part of their trip, students are taking part in a humanitarian brigade to bring solar lamps, personal filters and other personal items to those impacted by the recent earthquakes. Anyone interested in helping to offset the cost of student travel to Puerto Rico and provide support for the humanitarian supplies can make a donation the clinic online.

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Sustainable Development Goals:

4. Quality education: Promoting inclusive, quality education

10. Reduced inequalities: Reducing inequalities found within the community

16. Peace, justice, & strong institutions: Promoting peace and justice with effective, accountable and inclusive institutions