Law students assist devastated Gulf Coast

One of the groups in Gulfport, Miss. worked with the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives. Students pictured here are (from
One of the groups in Gulfport, Miss. worked with the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives. Students pictured here are (from left) Jessica Miller, Noam Greenspan, Jie Jiang, Eddie Valdespino, Ade Shelley, Fuerza Linda Fraga and Dave Mervis. Eden Harrington

Nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region communities are still struggling, but students from the University of Texas School of Law found a way to offer assistance in a unique way.

Fifty law students volunteered in the Gulf Coast in January, providing assistance to organizations addressing residents' post-Hurricane Katrina legal needs.

"Students were clearly moved by the region's continued devastation and the unmet legal needs of low-income residents in the area," said Eden Harrington, director of the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law. "The volunteer work was challenging and rewarding, and we plan to arrange similar trips in the future."

Two groups of students from the university traveled to the Gulf Coast. The Thurgood Marshall Legal Society organized 19 students to volunteer in Louisiana while members of the Justice Center organized a second group of 31 students to travel to the Gulfport, Miss., area.

Some of the students volunteered with the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, an organization working to conserve and restore the historic community of Turkey Creek.

The group helped with a project called "Ground Truthing," which involved surveying every plot of land in the 17,000-acre Turkey Creek watershed, according to first-year law student Dave Mervis.

"Our group worked on compiling binders of basic tax information of every plot of land in the watershed," Mervis said. "We also helped draft the survey that will be used by volunteers who will go out on foot and detail the nature and condition of every piece of property on every lot in the area."

The purpose of the project, first-year student Eddie Valdespino explained, is to secure funding for people to rebuild their homes by determining whether they can be labeled as historic or not because historic sites are entitled to extra government subsidies.

"My group was setting the groundwork for this project by researching all of the individual lots and houses in the community through their tax records and creating the field manuals that later volunteers will use to do the actual surveying," Valdespino said.

Many of the students were first-year law students and while they found their limited knowledge challenging at times, they were excited to gain experience.

"The most rewarding aspect of the trip was the degree of appreciation we were shown, and the knowledge that what we did, too, will be useful," said first-year student Fuerza Linda Fraga.

Valdespino said it was rewarding to have the opportunity to interact on a personal level with members of the community and witness their resolve and perseverance.

"It was great to see people on the brink of ruin still willing to smile and help out their neighbor," he said. "It was also amazing to see a group of people so deeply rooted to their community. It is something that is gradually being lost in this country.

"The most challenging aspect of the trip was accepting the fact that no matter how much we did in the time that we were there, it was only a drop in the bucket and while after this one week I was going to get to go home to my comfortable life in Austin, the people of Turkey Creek were still going to have to continue their fight to regain the basic necessities that most of us take for granted."

For more information on the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives visit