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Birthplace: Elkhart, Indiana
Time in New Orleans at Interview: 2+ years
New Orleans Post-Katrina Work: volunteer Common Ground Legal Clinic; volunteer ACORN/Common Ground; summer legal intern, Advocacy Center, Louisiana; Equal Justice Works Americorps Legal Fellow and Staff Attorney, Southeast Legal Services
N.O.L.A. Oral History Project
Interview with Amanda Furst
October 22, 2010
Melissa D'Lando, William Ippen, Eliot Pope, Jeffrey Wing
Amanda Furst Interview Abstract
The interview with Amanda Furst occurred on October 22, 2010 at 3:00 PM in Christopher Manning's office at Loyola University Chicago via a teleconference call to Ms. Furst's office at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) in New Orleans. Loyola students enrolled in the graduate-level course “Oral History: Method and Practice” conducted the interview. Melissa D'Lando acted as interviewer, and William Ippen and Eliot Pope transcribed the audio. Jeffrey Wing edited the transcript.
The interview comprises part of the N.O.L.A. History Project, which seeks to document the stories and experiences of volunteers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Furst offers the perspective of an outsider who came to the city to volunteer following the hurricane, fell in love with it, and stayed.
Furst discussed her experiences with and ultimate relocation to the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in the interview. Furst, an Iowa native, took a trip to New Orleans with a friend a week before Katrina hit and immediately before starting law school at the University of Iowa. She returned to volunteer during her spring break in March 2006, along with several classmates, one of whom was a New Orleans native whose family lost their home. The Student Hurricane Network placed students in various organizations to assist with relief efforts. Furst obtained placement in the Common Grounds Legal Clinic, a grassroots legal clinic adjacent to the Ninth Ward. She volunteered in New Orleans during subsequent spring breaks in 2007 and 2008, and interned there during the summer of 2007. She immediately took the Louisiana BAR and relocated to New Orleans after graduating in May 2008.
Furst obtained an Americorps Fellowship with SLLS, which lasted from September 2008 to September 2010. She also participated in a medical/legal partnership with the Tulane Medical Clinic during this time. Furst remained with SLLS as staff attorney after completing the fellowship. She worked in the SLLS Employment and Public Benefits Unit and currently works in the Housing Unit. These positions complement her career aspirations in public interest law and civic aid. Furst notes that, although the SLLS does not deal exclusively with Katrina-related issues, many of the ongoing issues they encounter are still indirectly related to the hurricane. She is optimistic about the amount of progress achieved in the rebuilding of New Orleans, but remains concerned about the amount of work that remains. Furst sees herself remaining in New Orleans indefinitely.
Editorial notes: The transcribers and editors sought to avoid major editorial intervention in order to maintain the transcription's authenticity in relation to the interview itself. Ellipses denote interruptions or simultaneous speech and are not intended to denote pauses in the dialogue. The utterances “um” and “uh” are included in the transcript, as are repetitive colloquialisms such as “you know,” “like,” and “okay.” Brackets denote laughter.
0-5 minutes Introductions; Furst's life before Katrina; visit to New Orleans immediately before the hurricane; Furst's initial reactions to the hurricane
5-10 minutes Furst's initial reactions to the hurricane; volunteer experience in New Orleans while in law school; relocation to New Orleans after law school; Americorps fellowship; work as Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) staff attorney
10-15 minutes Work as SLLS staff attorney; impediments to public access to programs; SLLS legal work; Road Home Program; SLLS units and their functions
15-20 minutes SLLS units and their functions; Furst's duties with SLLS; medical/legal partnership between Tulane Community Clinic and SLLS; working relationships between relief organizations; New Orleans residents' reactions to arrival of outsiders
20-25 minutes Furst's favorite aspects of working with SLLS; context of picture Furst submitted (see appendix); Common Ground; evolution of relief organizations in relation to the changing needs of residents
25-30 minutes Provision of coping methods for clients; SLLS's place in the larger context of Katrina relief efforts; lessons learned from rebuilding efforts
30-35 minutes Lessons learned from rebuilding efforts; how lessons can be applied to future disasters; comparison between Katrina and the BP oil spill of 2010; residents' positive attitudes; Furst's desire to remain in New Orleans; how SLLS work changed Furst
35-40 minutes How SLLS work changed Furst; lessons Furst learned; Furst's assessment of rebuilding progress; social distribution of relief efforts
40-45 minutes Social distribution of relief efforts; tourist industry's economic importance to New Orleans; state of public services (education, healthcare, police department); poor access to public health services
45-50 minutes Poor access to public health services; national perception of rebuilding process juxtaposed to local reality; future of SLLS related to Katrina; contractor fraud as an ongoing problem
50-54:25 minutes Furst's vision for future work with SLLS; state of housing; public service improvements produced by rebuilding process; closing remarks; goodbyes
Amanda Furst Interview
Amanda Furst: Hello?
Christopher Manning: Hi Amanda. It’s Chris Manning from Loyola.
CM: Uh, your interviewers are here. Introduce yourselves.
Melissa D’Lando: Hi Amanda. I am Melissa D’Lando.
Eliot Pope: Hi. I am Eliot Pope.
Jeff Wing: Hi. I am Jeff Wing.
CM: All right. So I am going to leave them, leave you in their capable hands.
CM: And you all have a great interview.
AF: Awesome. Thanks Chris.
MD: Hi Amanda. How is it going?
MD: Thank you so much for talking with us.
AF: No problem.
MD: Okay. Um, so, we are going to start off. Um, so the first question we have is, um, what was going on in your life before Hurricane Katrina?
AF: Oh man.
MD: I know. It’s a tough…it’s a big one. Take your time. [Laughter]
AF: Let’s think.
AF: Uh, I lived in Iowa and I was, um, teaching pre-school for about three years.
AF: I had graduated from college with English, so obviously, I had no idea what I wanted to do.
MD: Yeah, I know that feeling.
AF: Um, and, I was teaching pre-school, thinking about grad school. I had just applied to law school, and I had actually just started. Um, I was a couple days in when Hurricane Katrina happened.
MD: Oh, so you were in law school when the…
AF: Was. I was. I had just started.
MD: Okay. Where you in Iowa in law school?
MD: Okay. So, okay, um, so you were not in New Orleans at the time.
MD: What, um, so what did you think when you saw the coverage on the news?
AF: Well, I actually had just been here…
AF: My roommate at the time had come here a lot as a kid and thought, “Hey you’re going to go to law school soon. Wouldn’t it be fun to take a trip?” So we actually came to New Orleans for a week just to see the city and hang out. Literally the week before.
AF: Um, we flew out the day before the reports started coming in that everyone needed to evacuate.
MD: Oh God.
AF: So, it was really crazy. Um, obviously we had a good time here. And we stayed at a hotel in Canal and we did lots of, you know, typical New Orleans touristy things. At the time, she was looking to go to school down here, so we had toured some of the colleges together.
AF: Um, so when I saw the news reports, um, obviously, like everybody, it was really shocking, and sad and devastating. Um, and then I think, again, uh, with everybody, as it went on and kept going and there were many days that went by, uh, I felt really angry. And I think, I think that was pretty common. Um, just kind of angry and helpless.
MD: Angry about the government’s response or…
MD: …or what were you saying? Okay.
AF: Angry that it had happened.
AF: Definitely angry about the government’s response.
AF: Um, angry about all the people that clearly needed help and they needed immediate help and, um, the fact that, that it didn’t happen for so many days, and so many weeks. And, I guess now so many years.
MD: Okay. Uh, so I guess being there right before hand probably gave you a pretty, um, excellent barometer for comparison. I mean, when you, you know, went there eventually afterwards to see how the city changed and stuff.
AF: It was. It was really interesting.
AF: Obviously I didn’t live here. And I, I, I’m not from here, um, but I had just been here and, so, coming back to volunteer in March of ‘06 was, you know, just a couple months after it had happened and to see the places that I had been in August and how much that it had changed. Um, that was really shocking. And I think, um, that’s I guess the other side to it. It was really sad that a lot of the, the uh, important, I guess, cultural places in New Orleans were, were um, damaged.
MD: So, um, March of ‘06 was when you first came to start volunteering.
AF: Um, yes.
MD: And, um, so you were with the Southwest, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services right now?
MD: And, um, were you with any other volunteer organizations before that?
AF: Oh absolutely.
AF: Um, my school, the University of Iowa, uh, College of Law, we had a student in my 1L class who was from here and his family’s house was destroyed and that was obviously pretty difficult. And so the students at the time organized a trip, like many students across the country, to come down and volunteer…
AF: …and I was with that group. And I just wanted to come because I really loved New Orleans. And I, I knew at that time I wanted to do something involving public interest work and the law. So I thought that that was probably pretty important.
AF: So when I came down in March of ’06, um, we went through the Student Hurricane Network at the time that was placing students with volunteer organizations. So, my school also did all kinds of things. But, I was assigned to the Common Grounds Legal Clinic, which was a grass roots legal clinic, um, and right outside of the Lower Ninth Ward, actually in the Ninth Ward that was helping people. And so that’s where I volunteered, um, that whole week.
MD: Have you, um, now just to get a sense of, of time frame, have you been in New Orleans since March of ‘06 or did you go back to Iowa? Did you finish school?
AF: No, That’s okay. It’s really confusing.
MD: [Laughter] No.
AF: So, I was a one 1L when Katrina happened.
MD: You were…I’m sorry?
AF: I was a 1L…
AF: …that’s first year in law school.
MD: Okay, gotcha.
AF: So, all three…law school is three years…
MD: Mmm hmm.
AF: …and all three spring breaks of law school…
MD: Mmm hmm.
AF: …I came down with my school to volunteer.
MD: So that would have been ‘06, ’07.
AF: And ’08.
MD: Okay, gotcha. Okay.
AF: Now, the summer of ’07, so from May until August…
MD: Uh huh.
AF: …I came down to do a summer internship here…
AF: …I lived here for those months and interned.
AF: Um, and then after I graduated in May of ‘08, I took the Louisiana Bar and moved down. And, I’ve been here full time since then.
MD: Wow. Okay, okay, um, so what brought you to the organization you’re with now?
AF: Um, you know, there’s tons of organizations down here, and there’s lots of places and non-profits that are helping people in different ways. I knew that I was interested in civil legal aid. I don’t think I…[laughter]…have the talent for criminal, or the…I guess, the stomach for criminal.
AF: So, when I was looking for jobs and places to work at after graduation, I looked at South East Louisiana Legal Services…
AF: …they’re the main civil legal aid in New Orleans. They’re really big. They have a lot of attorneys. They cover a lot of different areas. So I kind of thought it was a great place to really get in the middle of the action immediately…
AF: …and get involved. So I applied, um, I guess like everyone that wants to do public interest, you kind of…[laughter]…apply everywhere and see what comes up. So I had applied here and was in contact with the, uh, executive director, um, and then this Americorps, or equal justice work Americorps fellowship came up that he ended up hiring me for.
MD: Okay, and so you’ve been with that organization since immediately, like, right after law school?
AF: Yeah, I’ve been…
AF: So, I started my fellowship in September of ’08…
AF: …and then I just finished my fellowship in September of 2010 and then just started the same organization as a regular staff attorney.
MD: Do you feel like, I mean I guess, I guess you spent a lot of time there intermittently throughout school, do you feel like, um, do you feel like being there as a resident, like was, did you see, do you feel like you saw more once you were there permanently as a resident than, you know, spending summers there, like, a couple weeks at a time?
AF: Oh yeah, absolutely.
MD: Yeah, what um, so what, what did you see when you got there? Was it what you expected, or like, worse than you expected? Better? Were you pleasantly surprised? Or kind of shocked…
MD: …by the, by the level of, of the, you know, restoration process?
AF: Um, I think it’s interesting coming from Iowa. It’s the…the sort of legal aid and legal efforts there are more rural, obviously…
AF: …I mean New Orleans is a much bigger city. And so, just, even separate from Hurricane Katrina, the large scale urban, uh, problems for, for poor people here are kind of overwhelming, and everything is all connected and it’s really complicated. Um, I think that the most surprising thing, moving and working full-time, is, in a lot of ways, not very much has been done for a lot of people since Katrina. Um, there was a lot of money. Obviously, there were a lot of programs that were started. Uh, eventually the government did give a lot of money to, to help people. And that, really the access to that, to those programs help and money has been a huge problem. Most, a large number of people in New Orleans are, uh, have a very low literacy level…
AF: …and, they’re not illiterate but they…they don’t operate. It’s hard for them to fill out papers...
AF: …and, um, run through a lot of the bureaucratic issues that are really required by a lot of these programs. And that’s true for the disaster programs and just regular people trying to get on disability or food stamps or things that people deal with everywhere. Um, so I think that it was really surprising, you know, how few people had really been successful in getting help since Katrina. And that’s still true now.
MD: Do you feel like, um, I mean, what do you think could have or should have been done differently from the get-go? I guess that’s a huge question also. But, I’m sure you’ve had time to think about that.
AF: Yeah. I, you know, I think I was watching that…the Spike Lee documentary.
MD: Oh , we were just watching that in class, too.
AF: It’s awesome. [Laughter] I was watching it with my parents, uh, I don’t know, it’s probably a year ago. Um, it wasn’t too long ago. Six months or a year.
MD: Uh huh.
AF: And, in the movie, everyone’s really frustrated because they haven’t gotten any assistance yet and the FEMA trailers, and they don’t have anywhere to live. And, um, you know, they’re having trouble getting basic support services. And it’s frustrating to watch that knowing it’s five years out and that those same people don’t have any of that yet. Um, I think that’s definitely frustrating. I think that more, um, I guess, bureaucracy would be the main thing that really should have been done differently.
MD: I guess that’s always the issue…
MD: …in many cases, yeah.
AF: You can’t take a group of low income, low literacy people who don’t have any access to, I guess, the kind of skills that you would need to really navigate that, and then require just an enormous amount of paperwork and different people all the time, and they have to keep all of this stuff, they have to present all of this paperwork that was lost in the storm, and it just wasn’t ever setup in a way that was gonna allow anyone to be successful. So the kind of people that were successful in, in getting a lot of the assistance and help after Katrina were people who had higher levels of literacy, and were able to keep their papers together…
AF: … and follow directions and run through the process a lot easier.
MD: Okay. So, I guess, yeah, I guess that leads into my next question. Um, is this, you know, is the work that you guys do at your organization related to this? What kind of legal issues do you guys deal with related to the hurricane and its aftermath?
AF: Okay. Um, this is going to be overwhelming to listen to because we have a lot. [Laughter]
MD: Okay. All right. [Laughter]
AF: So we do free civil legal aid to low income people in the New Orleans area…
AF: …so we cover a lot of the parishes. Um, other places have counties, uh, Louisiana has parishes.
MD: Uh huh, so do you guys do…are you focused mainly in New Orleans or?
AF: We are located in New Orleans.
MD: You are located in New Orleans.
AF: Some of the parishes are only a couple miles away.
AF: So we cover, um, a large variety of, hence the name Southeast Louisiana. Um, now, we have a bunch of different units, and we have attorneys in those units...
AF: …to help people. Every unit to this day still has issues Katrina related.
AF: Now, immediately, I guess more, more immediately, um, you know, we have had attorneys that are still helping people with Road Home. Now, Road Home is the program that was started, funded by the government to fill in the gap between what people had to rebuild and what people needed to rebuild their homes’ details.
AF: Um, we help people with the appeals process and with their rights under that. Um, we, in the past, helped people with the DHAP program, the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, um, with FEMA issues. Those have kind of, kind of ended now. Um, we have a, a huge variety of units. So we have…I’ll just start over. So, we have a consumer unit…
AF: …and they do anything related to consumer issues, but, most importantly, they have a lot of contractor fraud stemming from Katrina that they’re trying to help people resolve.
AF: Um, we have an employment and public benefits unit that’s helping people with the Road Home problem, with FEMA issues, um, with any sort of income support. A lot of those are still related to Katrina because paperwork that people need to get those sort of benefits is often missing or, it’s confusing now, people had to move away, and they lost their jobs and they’re coming back, those problems. We have a family law unit. They help people with, um, custody issues, divorces…
AF: …domestic violence. Obviously, in the wake of Katrina, um, that had a huge upswing, um, and they’re still helping people with problems, problems there. Um, we’re doing foreclosure prevention, um, and homelessness advocacy. There’s a whole lot of homeless people here. The mental health issues are kind of overwhelming from people that, that lived through everything.
MD: Yeah that’s…and that’s probably something that’s gonna last for years and years I’m sure.
AF: Yeah, absolutely.
MD: It’s awful.
AF: And then we have a large housing unit which I’m in now...
MD: Oh that’s…so that’s what you are specifically involved in? The housing unit?
AF: Last two years I’ve been in the employment and public benefits unit.
MD: Okay yeah. That’s going to be my next question. Which specifically…which area specifically? Sorry I got ahead of myself.
AF: Okay, I got a whole lot of information.
MD: Okay. [Laughter]
AF: So I spent two years in the employment and public benefits unit.
AF: Um, I did what I was talking about earlier, the Road Home claims, [unintelligible] FEMA claims, um, so figuring out what people were owed, why they are having problems either just getting access to the funding or once they’re there, uh, how much they should get. Um, we also did lots of medical and medical health issues. Employment and unemployment, food stamps, Social Security…
AF: …those sorts of problems. Um, and I did that for two years along with, because I was on the fellowship, running a medical legal partnership with, um, the Tulane Community Clinic.
MD: Oh okay.
AF: To, the idea that is, um, that, to offer, like, on the ground legal aid to people with the help of doctors and medical staff to address…
AF: …the legal needs of the patients’ health onsite. So a lot of those issues were obviously still Katrina related.
MD: Okay. Do you feel like, like, in the wake of Katrina, like, all the volunteer organizations that are down there work really well together? Like support each other really well?
AF: I think so.
AF: It’s just been really interesting. Um, New Orleans is a relatively big city [Laughter] compared to other places. Um, and so I moved down here not knowing anyone. And as soon as you, as soon as I got involved in the public interest community, um, you see the same people over and over again and the same people run these organizations and they’re all, they all work together. So it’s been really great to have these, the support of my organization, but then also these other organizations. And we have, you know, every sort of public interest field down here has lots of meetings where we talk about how to work together…
AF: …and what issues, especially, responding to Katrina. Because all of this is so new, it’s really important to keep meeting and saying, “I’m seeing this happening, this is gonna be a problem.”
AF: Uh, a lot of the other, I guess typical legal aid issues are stuff that people across the country see, you know, these are the problems with, um, getting custody or something. But because of Katrina a lot of the problems are brand new. People haven’t had to deal with them before. So it’s been really worthwhile to have these other organizations where you can get together with and say this stuff and this, um, government assistance or government benefits process doesn’t work because of these issues down here. And, um, that has been really great. You know, we’ve worked together on lawsuits and getting Know Your Rights presentations out to clients, um, and just helping people, sharing volunteers, um, and all of those, all of those sort of issues we still, to this day work together on.
MD: Nice. I mean I guess, um, I guess one of the things that we have been talking about, which is partially why I asked that, is how, um, how many…just the…the flux of outsiders, people from other places, moving to New Orleans to help with the aftermath of the hurricane. Like, do you feel like you were well-received by the city and everyone who’s just moved there was well-received?
AF: I think, you know, there are definitely, especially in this recession…
MD: Mmm hmm.
AF: …people that are wary about outsiders coming and taking jobs...
AF: …and I think that’s pretty valid. Um, but there is a lot of money coming to the city, to sort of look at things in a new way, try new organizations, um, and that’s where a lot of the, the people that have moved down here, that’s what they’re focused on. There’s been a lot of effort of in keeping people here who have moved down to volunteer…
AF: …um, long-term to sort of help rebuild. Uh, I think it’s been a great reception. I mean, everybody is really excited. They’re really, the clients are really excited that you’re here and that you want to help. Um, the people in New Orleans are really excited to sort of show you what’s really great about their town and they’ve been really welcoming about the whole, the whole town and how, how you can fit into it and really build a life here.
MD: I would imagine that it would be a positive response…
MD: …for the most part. Um, so as far as you, since you’ve been, since you’ve been working there, what are, what are some of your favorite things about what you’ve been doing?
AF: I love meeting with the clients…
MD: Mmm hmm.
AF: …I think that’s really great. Um ,it’s really nice to see new people every day and help them with whatever they’re facing. Um, I think that’s been really fun. It’s been really exciting to build this medical-legal partnership project and do something new, ‘cause it’s a new way of offering legal services that I think is really exciting, to go to the sites that the clients are going to, and…and work with health care providers to sort of address the needs of the clients. Um, that’s something that’s kind of new in legal aid, and so that’s been exciting to be a part of…
AF: …um, and I really like the community at Legal Services. Uh, everybody has their own way of doing things and there’s a whole lot going on, and a whole lot of clients. I think we have about eight thousand come through per year, and everybody is really, um, focused on helping each other and giving you whatever you need to support you and, and make sure, you know, you keep doing this every day and that you come back and do really well.
MD: Do you, um, do you recall any, like, specific person who stands out to you, who you’ve met with? Or I guess if you want to talk about the, uh, the picture you sent us?
AF: Oh the picture I sent you!
MD: Yeah. [Laughter] Or somebody else or some other situation?
AF: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think I’m specifically allowed to talk about clients. [Laughter]
MD: Oh, okay. Well yeah.
AF: Let’s see, so the picture that I sent you…
AF: …I can talk about that, certainly.
AF: I mentioned the Common Ground…
MD: Uh huh.
AF: …I guess movement earlier, and one of the first trips that my school took…
MD: Oh so that picture was from when you were still in school?
MD: The picture was from when you were still in school?
AF: …that was when I still was in school.
MD: Uh huh.
AF: So we were here for the school trip…
MD: Mmm hmm.
AF: …you know, every year we made our visit to the Lower Ninth Ward to, sort of, see how it had changed and what had happened, and when we went, um, the leader of Common Ground, uh, and his name is Malik Rakim…
MD: Mmm hmm.
AF: …he, he really started the organization with some other people…
AF: …he was there and he spoke to us about what he had been through and what his organization was doing. And, so that picture is at the Lower Ninth Ward in front of the house that was almost hit by the, by the barge that came through the levee, but not quite…
MD: Oh wow.
AF: …and it was sort of where Common Ground started…
AF: …um, symbolically, to help rebuild. And Common Ground has a million different projects that’s going on. They were rebuilding houses, they were offering legal aid, they’re, you know, working with the environment. Um, but it was really inspiring to hear him talk about, listen, you know, we can’t sit around and talk about what the government needs to do and what should be done. We just need to step in and start doing it. And, and that’s what Common Ground was. It was a grass roots organization right after Katrina.
MD: So they formed right after Katrina?
AF: Yeah, a couple days after…
MD: Okay, okay. Wow, wow.
AF: …um, started. And sort of hit the ground running to use all the volunteers that were coming down and the people in the city…
MD: Uh huh.
AF: …to sort of take on whatever needed to be done. And they were really focused on rebuilding schools and rebuilding houses, and it was really inspirational to work with them, and certainly to meet him and see…you know, you can sit around and talk about what should be done or you could just go do it. And that was, that was really exciting.
MD: That’s, now do you see, um, do you still see new organizations, new Katrina relief organizations popping up…
MD: …even after five years later?
AF: I mean they really change constantly.
MD: Okay. That’s good.
AF: And just, within our own organization, we had a big unit for a long time that was doing successions and title clearing…
AF: …because most of the programs here that were offering support required you to have the title to your home in your name.
AF: Well here, there’s…there’s a large number of people from poverty who didn’t, own their own home but didn’t, hadn’t transferred the title for generations…
MD: Oh right, yeah, we talked about that.
AF: Yeah, so you have these people coming in and the title is still in their great-grandparent’s name…
AF: …so for a long time, we had a ton of volunteer attorneys and staff attorneys that were helping people through that process.
MD: That’s interesting.
AF: That process has kind of worked itself through now…
AF: …um, and so, you know, the volunteer needs and the needs of the, of people have changed, and so there’s other units that are having more volunteers and getting more attention now.
MD: Okay. As like…
AF: I think in general in the city, the kinds of non-profits, um, the needs have changed because the needs of the people have changed.
MD: Okay. Um, alright, um, how do you, how do you feel, like, do you feel like, you know, obviously, parts of the job must be stressful and emotional. How do you feel like you or the people you work with cope with that? What sorts of, you know, major road blocks have you guys come upon and how do you, how do you deal with the stress?
AF: Um, being nice to people helps a lot. I think it’s important, everyone’s really frustrated. And it’s important to remember that the client, the client’s coming to you for the first time, but they’ve been through a trillion different organizations.
MD: Uh huh.
AF: And that’s, you know, and if they’re angry and they’re fed up, it’s because of that, is because they’ve been through a lot.
MD: They might be wary at first.
AF: And the people that you talk to on the phone to try and get your clients help…
MD: Uh huh.
AF: …well, if you’re talking to someone in New Orleans, most of them, they probably don’t have their house back either, and they’re probably dealing with many of the same issues as the clients. I mean, a lot of the people that we talk to to try and get issues resolved are case workers and people who are in the exact same position as our clients, um, and who went through Katrina, and have these housing and services issues. And so I think that’s, that’s been really important to remember is that everybody is kind of in the same boat with all of that.
AF: Um, and that’s really been helpful. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s particularly stressful...
AF: …I think that dealing with bureaucracy is difficult everywhere. And, you know, it’s just important to be nice to people and keep trying to push forward and find new paths to do things.
MD: Agreed. Um, okay. Um, so as far as your organization, I guess we’ll move on to the next set of questions that I have. Where do you feel it fits into the larger relief efforts by, like, the state, the government, the whole country, other volunteer agencies? Like, where do you guys, where do see your organization fitting in?
AF: Well we’ve managed to use a lot of the, um, volunteers from the country to come down and help.
AF: I mean, we are a large organization. We still have huge numbers of law students that are coming down, um, for winter break and spring breaks to volunteer.
AF: And so we’ve, and, in the past and currently, we have lots of law firms from across the country that have come down to volunteer. So I think part of where we fit in is teaching people, you know, this is Louisiana law. ‘Cause, um, Louisiana law is different from law in the rest of the country. I mean you could say that about every state, but the rest of the country has common law…
AF: …and Louisiana has civil law and it’s…
MD: Oh okay.
AF: ...it’s different.
AF: So people are often wary of helping out down here because of that reason.
MD: Now for somebody who doesn’t know much about, you know, legal specific, you know, what would that…
AF: Civil law is based in statutes. Common law is based in cases.
MD: Okay. All right. Is, and that’s specific…
AF: That’s my explanation.
MD: Interesting. So that’s specific to Louisiana?
MD: Okay, how did that, do you feel like that affected the aftermath of a lot of the legal issues with Katrina?
AF: Um, not really.
AF: And, and anytime it’s difficult, people are wary of volunteering if it’s outside of their area of expertise.
MD: Oh okay. Obviously, I guess that…
AF: Which is reasonable. So I think a large part of our place down here is to train people and mentor them and be leaders in, in the civil legal issues that have risen up because of Katrina.
AF: Rather than just, just accepting volunteers and, you know, making them hit the ground running, which we do anyway. But also to sort of educate them and provide information to them and to also the client on, you know, these are the issues, this is what you can do, this is what your rights are.
AF: So I think we really see ourselves as educating, uh, the community as well as to what their rights are and what they can do. And, you know, advocacy as to the issues that we're seeing. As I said before, because we have so many clients and we see people, um, when they really need immediate help. Uh, we see a lot of the major issues that are rising up for different, different post-Katrina problems immediately, and so a big part of our job is to do advocacy and work with those other organizations to say, “Listen, this is a policy we need to get changed because we are now seeing a lot of people that are having problems with this.”
MD: I guess, um, do you feel like your experience has led, you know, you and I guess your coworkers and a lot of the people involved in the, you know, volunteer efforts to rebuild the city and, you know, in terms of thinking how relief efforts should be coordinated for the future in terms of, you know, the government communicating with local, you know, local government communicating with state government, communicating with non-profits and, you know, a lot of, like, emergency rescue organizations. Like, do you feel like the, you know, you've thought a lot about that since you've worked there?
AF: Yeah, absolutely. I think people learned a lot.
AF: Um, it's not like…you know, nobody had dealt with this before.
AF: All of the, um, from bringing students down to volunteer to receiving the volunteers, you know, all of that's new and we certainly learned a lot. And I know that when, I'm just talking about this because I'm from there, but when Iowa had all the flooding, we sent people up to train them about FEMA issues that we had encountered, and a lot of it is sort of learning how to deal with these government programs as well as seeing what issues tend to arise. Um, as soon as the BP oil spill happened, we knew that there was gonna be issues there, you know, meetings started happening. Okay, what were the big problems immediately before? What do we need to do right away?
AF: And, and I think that we're all better capable of responding to that.
MD: So, you do think, do you see, like the city and its people feeling more prepared to deal with future crises, should they arise after this?
AF: I think so.
MD: Okay. That's good.
AF: I think the people feel stronger in their abilities to fight for themselves because they had to before.
MD: Okay. Okay, how, um, how did you guys, I mean, do you feel like the oil spill has, you know, have you guys dealt with a lot with the oil spill that happened recently?
AF: Um, we have. There's been, right now we have two Americorps vistas.
AF: Um, so I'm no longer a Equal Justice Works Americorps legal fellow.
AF: Uh, but we have, because my fellowship ended, but we have four replacements and we have two Americorps vistas who are tasked with, um, doing outreach for the oil spill and we've certainly done a lot of outreaches so far and started to respond to the issues that are coming from that.
AF: Um, and it's kind of the same stuff.
AF: You know, you see the claims process and the problems that people are gonna have.
MD: Yeah. Do you feel like, um, I don't know. Do you feel like, have you seen, has that affected the city in terms of, like setting back, like, relief efforts or setting back, like, the rebuilding of the city? It's almost like, it seems like, you know, beating someone while they're down kind of situation.
AF: Um, I think it certainly felt that way at first.
AF: People really didn't know what was gonna happen.
MD: Mmm hmm.
AF: But it's such a different problem.
AF: The oil spill, it's affected people here financially a lot…
AF: …in New Orleans. Tourism and restaurants and all that kind of stuff.
AF: And that's been difficult for people to deal with, um, but most of the, the actual, uh, the people that were fishermen and fisherwomen along the coast.
AF: And that's like an hour and a half, an hour south of New Orleans. And a lot of those issues are boat foreclosures and tax problems.
AF: Trying to prove that you did have, whatever lost income you have, um, related to the oil spill. Also, you know, it's a specific problem with a company that spilled a lot of oil… [Laughter] …and, um, a lot of it has to do with environmental problems and financial issues, whereas Katrina was definitely, like, a whole set of other issues.
MD: Okay. Okay. Um, all right. Um, so what do you, what do you feel like you've learned about the people of New Orleans throughout this whole experience?
AF: They have the best attitude I've ever seen.
AF: Um, people have had just unimaginable things happen to them over and over again, I mean, because of Katrina, but also just because, um, of whatever's happened to them in life.
AF: And they have a really positive attitude about the whole thing. You know, like a huge number of clients always say they're just gonna, they're just gonna leave it up to God to, um, whatever's gonna happen happens. They, they know how to speak up for themselves. I think, at this point going through the bureaucracy has really taught them, like, “This is my story, this is what I need.”
MD: Uh huh.
AF: Um, people that really I don't think ever expected it of themselves, you know, they now know, write down the name of the person you're talking to…
AF: …and say exactly what you need right away. Um, that's been really impressive and really inspiring to see.
MD: Um, do you see yourself staying there? I know that might be a tough question, but yeah.
AF: Oh yeah, absolutely.
MD: Yeah? You think that…
AF: Oh yeah.
MD: …you're a New Orleanian now?
AF: Oh yeah.
MD: Nice. Do you feel like a lot of the people who've, you know, come there in the past couple of years to help rebuild the city feel the same way?
AF: I think so.
AF: I think it's easy to come down here and fall in love with the city.
MD: I mean, I was only there once, but I kind of felt the same way.
AF: Yea and, you know, everybody says that who comes down here. All the spring break kids are like, “Oh man, I wish I could move here,” and…
MD: It’s, it's a pretty magical place.
AF: It is. It is. And it's, it’s pretty, it's pretty fun and there's so much to do, and it's really exciting, and there's all this weird New Orleans stuff about it, um, that it's pretty easy just to, to make a home for yourself here.
MD: Nice. Do you feel, so do you feel like you're a changed person now? Do you feel like you're very different than you were at the beginning of this process?
AF: Sure. [Laughter]
AF: I don’t know.
MD: That's a tough question, I suppose.
AF: Um, I mean, it's hard ‘cause I went through law school and, um, you know, a lot of stuff happened in there anyway, but, um, I think it's definitely changed me in, um, I don't know exactly how I see my place in public interest and being able to help people, and I really like, I think the biggest thing is, you know, because of Katrina, the public interest community is so shaken up down here and there's so many new issues, and, and new programs, and new ways of doing things, and it's, I never expected to be a part of something that really got to build from the ground up. And that's been really exciting.
MD: Yeah, especially right after school. It's like you were, you know, thrown right into it immediately.
MD: That's, I mean, that's exciting. I mean, you probably can tackle anything now. [Laughter]
MD: Um, do you, I mean, as far as, as far as the country as a whole, do you feel like the experience going through this has changed how you see America or affected what you think?
AF: Um, I'd say that I am definitely more wary now of, uh, leaving anything in the hands of anyone else to do.
AF: I think that, you know, if it's taught me anything, it's that it's just people wanting to do things and help people and getting issues resolved, you should probably just go do it, because waiting for government and trying to deal with the bureaucracy, uh, can be really fruitless, or can take a really long time and so, often it's just more important to go figure out a way to do it yourself.
MD: Which it seems like a lot of people did in the wake.
AF: And I think that's been really great.
MD: Yeah. Yeah, it seems like everything good that happened there immediately post the hurricane had to do with people like, you know, much like yourself who were like “I'm gonna go down there and I'm gonna do what I can,” and all these organizations formed from that which seems, it, it seems really great.
AF: And I think the most important thing it did, to know that there are a lot of other people like that. I mean a ton of people. Just thousands and thousands and thousands of people have come down here to rebuild and help in whatever way they can and, you know, you might, I was definitely not somebody that had any sort of manual labor skills.
AF: But I spent two, um, one of the spring break weeks, uh, demolishing houses and it was super fun.
AF: Gross, um, but really rewarding and that was something that I could do. And so I think that people are really surprised by, you know, what they are able to do.
MD: Okay. Where do you think the, the relief effort, like, the rebuilding effort is now? Like, where would you say the city is in terms of getting back on its feet?
AF: Um, I think it's like everything: it's day by day.
AF: There's, there's some aspects of it that have come way farther and are way more impressive than I think anyone ever thought.
MD: Like, like what, for example?
AF: Um, you know, a lot of the tourist stuff is back and better than ever.
AF: I think what's happening with the Make It Right Foundation in the Lower Ninth Ward is really great. I think all of the thousands of volunteers that came down here to demolish houses and, and help people get back. I think there's so many more organizations that help…
MD: What is? Oh sorry.
AF: …than people thought possible.
MD: Okay, what is, what is Make it Right exactly? I know I've heard it.
AF: Oh that's, I don't know a whole lot about it, but that's Brad Pitt's group that…
MD: I thought so, okay.
AF: …it's rebuilding houses in the Lower Ninth Ward…
AF: …that are energy, that are sustainable houses, um, for people who are former residents.
MD: Okay. I think I did read something about that somewhere. But, um, so is the Lower Ninth Ward, like, is it doing well there? Because I know you keep reading about how there are still so many boarded up houses and…
AF: This is true.
AF: It's…all of that's true.
AF: Everyone, I know a lot of great inspirational stories and a lot of people that are doing well, and a lot of neighborhoods that are doing well, and there's a lot of really sad stories and there's a lot of neighborhoods that haven't been touched yet. And, um, you know, so a lot of it's come really far and a lot of it's really sad how little has been done.
MD: So it's very touch and go, I guess.
MD: Do you see, are there patterns in terms of which areas get more, more help or more relief or is just kind of day by day?
AF: Well, the areas that were the hardest hit…
AF: …were the poorest areas.
AF: That's true. Um, obviously a lot of money was spent and a lot of effort was focused on the more touristy areas at first, but that's kind of understandable because that brought people back to be able to work to, for the tourists and brought the tourists back, and, you know, that was pretty important.
MD: Do you think that was a major, like a big deal in terms of, you know, getting money pumped back into the city and making sure the tourist areas were reopened and people could come immediately?
AF: And I think that's really important. You know, I remember coming down here and, during one of my visits, and trying to help people who were staying, um, under the FEMA program at a hotel…
AF: …and, well they don't have jobs until the restaurants reopen.
AF: So you kind of need the tourists to come back so that people can come back and work at the hotels and the restaurants.
AF: And a whole lot of people down here work in the service industry.
AF: And if we didn't have those tourist areas reopen then, you know, there wasn't going to be a lot for a lot of people to come back to.
MD: Right. So it was all related.
MD: And tourists did come back pretty, pretty soon, right? Afterwards?
AF: Yeah, I think so.
MD: Okay, um.
AF: That was, and a lot of the, um, more tourist areas weren't, um, hit as badly, so that helped too.
MD: Okay. So, what do you think the next steps are? What do you see as being, like, what still needs to be done in terms of what should be a priority from here?
AF: Um, I think the big two that are always a priority everywhere probably education and healthcare. A lot has been done, um, to revamp the educational system down here. It's one of the areas where a lot of exciting things are happening. Um, but obviously, more can always be done, um, fixing up schools, getting better programs in the schools. Um, there needs to be, and then the second big thing is, uh, there needs to be much, much better access to healthcare.
AF: One of the big, um, I guess, hospitals used by low-income people, Charity Hospital, was destroyed in Katrina and there hasn't been anything to replace it. Um, so this is a city with a large number of poor people, a large number of people with mental health issues and physical issues and just really not a lot of places for them to get help and I think that's the next big issue.
MD: Okay. So, you would say that the education system is doing well?
MD: But what, and healthcare, maybe not so much? Or, you were saying.
MD: Yeah. So, um, what about, um, what about violence? Have you seen a lot of that? Is that, you know, is there still a lot of that going on?
AF: Well, I don't know how different it is than what it was like before Katrina, um, to be honest. So, I think it's something that recently, I don't know how much, um, the new mayor turned the police department over to the federal government. And they are in the process of totally revamping it, um, new policies, new procedures, getting out corruption, um, figuring out how to run the police department, um, more efficiently, but safer and better for the city. And so I think it's something that's definitely being looked at right now and it's, it’s an exciting time.
MD: That's good. I mean, so back to, um, back to healthcare, what do you think, like do you think, are there things being done, or do you think, like, what do you think should be done?
AF: Um, well, I think everybody agrees that there needs to be a new Charity Hospital-type hospital for low-income people.
MD: Okay. Is that in the works at all?
AF: It's been a long, big fight for many, many, many years.
MD: Yeah, God.
AF: There's tons of litigation going around about it.
AF: Yeah, everything down here is really complicated.
MD: Yeah, I can't even imagine.
AF: It's really overwhelming and, like, everything has a huge, long Louisiana history. So it's like, it's a mess. Um, there is a lot of new ways of offering healthcare.
AF: A lot of the hospitals have, uh, these mobile units where they're going to different community centers, food banks, and doing mommy-and-baby screenings or different issues like that to help people hopefully get better access to healthcare. Um, I think that there's, I mean there's so many people, so, so, so many people down here with mental health issues related to Katrina…
AF: …and I think that it's part of the culture to not really want to take it, want to get any help for that, and I think that that's gonna be a big, that is a big problem.
MD: That's interesting. Do you think, what do you, is that just, you know, is it just frowned upon by the culture or?
AF: And part of it's generational and part of it is cultural, but people don't want to go get professional help for mental health issues.
AF: Not that a whole lot exists, um, for low-income people, but.
MD: Have there definitely been, you know, grassroots efforts to help people with that kind of stuff? Because that seems like it would be a major issue.
AF: Oh, absolutely. There's clinics down here and it's just one of those situations where it's difficult to convince people.
MD: To come in.
AF: To take advantage of, yeah.
MD: Yeah, God.
AF: And to really get a lot of money funneled into helping people with that area. And it, you know, it causes problems with everything because it's adding to crime, certainly, and unemployment, um, huge numbers of people on disability or people unable to work, or provide for their families, or anything, or deal with, like all the life stuff you have to deal with and all the different bureaucracy stuff to get through what you need to get through. So it's been a huge problem.
MD: God. Do you feel like, do you get the sense that the remainder of the country thinks that, you know, the city is kind of, has come back or that, that, you know, things are a lot better there? Because it seems like it's not in the news as much as it once was.
AF: I'm not sure.
AF: Because I had a friend visit who's a very smart guy not too long ago and he was like, “I just thought everything here was destroyed.”
MD: Right, oh okay.
AF: I'm not sure what people think.
MD: It's, yeah, I mean, it's, you hear.
AF: So, you'll probably get that, like the wealthier areas and the touristy areas are now back and everything is fine, and I think that people think that, “Oh, the poorer areas were always gonna be poor and destroyed and so, you know, really isn't any point in helping there.”
MD: I mean I know from, like, my personal experience I was there a little over than a year ago and we stayed in the French Quarter, obviously, and, I mean, you, you just had, like from there you have no idea what has happened. It looks fine.
MD: But, I mean, you just have to be aware that, you know, you can go a mile or two miles away and it's a totally different universe.
MD: But, um, yeah, I was just wondering if you, I mean, I guess you're there, so obviously you're around people who are hyper-aware, but if you get a sense of, like what the rest of the country thinks. Because it definitely is not in the news as much as it used to be.
AF: That's true. That's true. And I, I, you know, I don't think that's Katrina-related. I think that it's difficult to have an ongoing national conversation about these huge amount of issues involved, um, with, with poverty and with low-income people, and that many of the problems in New Orleans are those problems.
AF: They're low-income, poverty problems. And that's complicated and less, um, exciting than just Katrina stuff.
MD: Okay. Um, so, what do you think the future holds for your organization related to work with the Katrina relief efforts?
AF: Well, um, taking on the oil spill stuff right now.
AF: That's definitely happening. Um, I think that we still have a lot of work to do with, uh, the different, um, government assistance programs from Katrina. A lot of that money still hasn't been handed out yet, so we're doing a lot there.
MD: Are you guys still working with FEMA? Whats the?
AF: Um, FEMA’s kind of ended. It's more the Road Home Program.
MD: Okay. ‘Cause FEMA is temporary, correct? They, you know, they help for a certain amount of time and then, okay.
AF: A lot of the appeals and the problems people had with FEMA is kind of over now.
MD: Did you do work with them?
MD: What was that like?
AF: Um, you know, it's like everything. It's frustrating, it's hard to get people on the phone, it's hard to get answers…
MD: Right, right.
AF: …what problems are. You know, it's like dealing with any government agency.
MD: Yeah, yeah, um.
AF: Uh, I think a lot of the contractor fraud is still gonna continue. A lot of the contractor fraud cases, you know, those take, can take a really long time.
MD: Now, what was, now what, can you expand on that a little bit? What was that about?
AF: Yeah, um. People got money from insurance or, um, FEMA or the Road Home Program to rebuild.
AF: And, um, some of those people were as savvy as they needed to be and still had contractors that took the money and ran away or took the money and did really poor jobs.
MD: Oh, God.
AF: Um, some people didn't, a lot of people were elderly and alone and didn't have a whole lot of support to decide who was a good contractor and who to give their money to. Um, so there's a whole lot of people that lost all of their money to contractors who, um, did very, very poor work and bailed. And so a huge part of the consumer unit here is to find those contractors and sue them for, um…
AF: …well, to finish the, to finish the work or to get the money back. And that's still a huge problem that's just ongoing.
MD: So, and that's, you guys are involved with that?
MD: Okay. And, um, would you say that on a day to, you said, like I guess you’re involved in a lot of the issues with the oil spill. Now would you say, on a day to day basis, Hurricane Katrina is still, you know, at the forefront of a lot of the stuff you guys do?
AF: Oh, absolutely.
MD: Okay, okay.
AF: I mean every issue that the clients have is somehow related back to what happened there, um, and there's just thousands and thousands of people here who are still trying to put their lives back together, and pick up the pieces, and get their home back, and get their family back together, and, um, figure out, you know, how they're gonna live their lives.
MD: Okay. Okay, so looking back, I mean, do you feel like you would have done anything differently or tried to do anything differently at this point?
AF: Um, probably not. I'm really glad I came down.
AF: Um, I'm really glad that I worked with, uh, so many different organizations. I think that, um, was really great. Um, it probably would have been more important for me to do less manual labor in volunteering…
AF: …more legal, but whatever. It was really fun.
MD: I mean, it's an experience. Yeah.
AF: Um, yeah. I don't know, I don't think I would have done anything differently.
MD: Well that's good. It's nice to be able to say that. Um, do you, so I guess we touched on this a little bit, but what's, what’s next for you? You think you're gonna to stay there you said.
AF: So I'm a regular staff attorney now.
AF: And I'm in the housing unit, so I just started in this unit. So I'm learning all about evictions and the housing authority.
AF: And Section 8.
AF: Um, it's an exciting time because the housing authority is run by new people and they are trying to—same thing with the police department, got taken over by the federal government—they are trying to stop the corruption and get it all back in order. Um, and we have a lot of old coworkers, um, that have recently gone over there to help out with that.
AF: So it's super exciting.
MD: Cool. So you're learning a lot of new stuff?
MD: What is the state of housing right now?
MD: Are there, are there shelters or a lot of people living in shelters, or?
AF: There's a huge amount of homeless people right now.
AF: There are a lot, they, there's, um, projects, lots of housing projects.
AF: Um, most of them at this point are mixed-income housing projects and they’re trying to get those rebuilt and move people in, um, and a lot of, uh, I guess steps that go along with that that we're trying to get people through.
AF: They are trying to move a lot of people on to Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers where…
AF: …like a Section 8 voucher, you can get it and go use that wherever.
AF: Um, there's a lot of problems with that program that they’re trying to work through. So basically, the biggest problem here is that a lot of the affordable housing for low-income people was the housing that was destroyed.
AF: So, people are trying to find places to live and rents are way above market rates. Uh, a part of that is because the government was paying people's rent for so long that landlords were charging way more than what the places were worth.
MD: Oh, and that was after Katrina, like in the immediate aftermath, or?
AF: For years and years.
MD: Okay, for years, okay.
AF: Um, they were paying rents for years and years and years.
AF: So people, so landlords were charging way more money than the, the apartments are worth and now that those programs have ended people are obviously having a lot of trouble trying to find affordable housing.
MD: Okay. Okay, so I guess, um, I just have one more question. I guess, do you see, I mean I know this obviously was a, you know, horrific tragedy, but, trying to look on the bright side, do you see any, like, positive thing that can come out of this having happened for the city of New Orleans?
AF: Yeah, it’s really exciting, um, to look at these major issues in America with poverty law, um, housing, uh, healthcare, education, um, and because of Katrina, sort of rebuild, or solve those problems almost from scratch and find new ways to, to deal with them and to, to help them. Um, I think the educational system down here with charter schools and, and developing new ways, that's been really inspirational and I think…
MD: Okay, the charter schools are new, right, since?
AF: There's a lot of opportunities down here to take on a lot of the issues with, um, poverty with, uh, a new way of doing things.
AF: That's really exciting to, to, uh, be a part of and to see happen.
MD: So you'd say mostly you see, you do see good things happening? You say, would you say you're happy with, you know, how far you guys have come in five years?
AF: Well, I wouldn't say that.
MD: Well, but.
AF: It's exciting.
AF: There's new chances to do things.
AF: Obviously it’s really frustrating…
AF: …that not that much has been done for a whole lot of people.
MD: Okay. Alright, um, well I guess that's it.
MD: Do you have any questions for us?
MD: Nope? Alright, well thank you so much for talking to us.
AF: No problem.
AF: If you have any questions about anything just email or call me.
MD: Definitely will.
MD: Thanks Amanda. Take care.
AF: Alright, you too.
Photograph of a man in the Lower Ninth Ward submitted by Amanda Furst