Flags for Puerto Rico.

Legal clinic to provide on-the-ground support to earthquake-rattled Puerto Rico

Published January 9, 2020

University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic is preparing for its fifth service-learning trip to the island where a #UBLawResponds team of students and faculty will continue legal and policy work to support a resilient Puerto Rico.

On January 18th, students from the School of Law and graduate students from the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences will depart for Puerto Rico, supported by a School of Law faculty member and staff attorney.

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

The clinic was first launched in November 2017 in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria which has 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, where they 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 return trips to the island to continue their work on resiliency issues related to access to food, energy, and information. Their upcoming visit, which has been planned for several months, will include meeting with existing clients and community partners. In addition, the #UBLawResponds team will present 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 College of Arts and Sciences will join the legal team to provide cultural and language expertise. UB graduate students in Romance Languages and Literatures will use their knowledge of language, 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 Associate Professor Amy C. Graves Monroe, 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. 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 are working late into the night, learning new areas of law and policy to help them address the island’s current needs. They are exploring earthquake response literature and approaches to post-disaster short-term action support, working 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. 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,” says Professor Kim Diana Connolly, Vice Dean for Advocacy and Experiential Learning and director of the clinic. “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.”

“The Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic demonstrates what sets our students apart,” says UB School of Law Dean Aviva Abramovsky.  “UB law students are compassionate, bold, and responsive.  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.”

Donate

As part of the upcoming trip, students are planning a humanitarian brigade to bring solar lamps and personal water filters to those impacted by the recent earthquakes. To help offset the cost of student travel to Puerto Rico and to provide support for the humanitarian supplies, donations to the clinic may be made online.