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Equal Justice at Work: June 2013

Executive Director's Corner

Springing into action for disaster relief victims

Agility is one of the attributes of Equal Justice Works I love most. When disasters strike, Equal Justice Works responds.

We deployed lawyers and law students to the Gulf in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and after the BP oil spill. After the tornadoes hit Joplin, Missouri, we deployed two Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows to help residents rebuild their communities. We similarly responded after Superstorm Sandy and temporarily redeployed three AmeriCorps Legal Fellows to New York City, and two Fellows adjusted their projects to focus on Sandy victims.

Last month, after the devastating tornadoes struck Oklahoma City and Moore, Oklahoma, once again we redeployed two AmeriCorps Legal Fellows from Joplin to the Legal Aid Society of Oklahoma. We also re-opened Summer Corps applications for students interested in spending a summer in Oklahoma, helping victims recover from the tornadoes.

Our Joplin Fellows, Zachary Tusinger and Jamie Rodriguez, are experts in disaster relief.  In one year, they represented 1,488 disaster victims with their FEMA claims, employment benefits, and insurance claims among other legal issues.  After each subsequent disaster—Sandy and then tornadoes in Oklahoma—Zach and Jamie responded immediately to offer assistance.   

Sara Cullinane, sponsored by the Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP Foundation, had just started her Fellowship when Hurricane Sandy struck.  Although her Fellowship project at Make the Road New York is focused on helping immigrant families in New York gain access to quality healthcare, Sara knew she had to help with the hurricane relief effort.  So in addition to her regular project, she was able to aid her community in recovering from the destructive storm. 

Zach, Jamie, Sara, and hundreds of other Fellows and students have gone above and beyond to help people who are hard hit by disasters.  The damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma Tornadoes has caused problems that will take years to fully resolve.  Placing Fellows with disaster expertise can help stabilize lives and rebuild communities. 

While I always feel upset and frustrated seeing the human and physical impact of disasters, I take pride in Equal Justice Works doing what it does exceptionally well:  Placing talented lawyers where they are needed most.



Fellows on the Front

Helping where they are needed most

Jamie Rodriguez and Zach Tusinger are no strangers to disaster relief. When an EF-5 tornado ravaged their hometown of Joplin, Missouri in May 2011, they both knew they had to do something to help. Jamie started out volunteering with Legal Aid of Western Missouri (LAWMO), working at a booth at an event organized by the American Red Cross and the State Emergency Management Agency. She heard about the recent Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowships established at LAWMO from Zach, and by October of the same year they were both working as AmeriCorps Legal Fellows helping their hometown rebuild.

Jamie and Zach have developed legal skills and expertise about disaster relief through their work in Joplin. Jamie said, “Attorneys responding to a disaster generally have no prior experience with ‘disaster law’ writ large because no one plans for this. No one plans for a disaster to strike one’s communities or clients.” Knowing this, Jamie and Zach were quick to respond when Hurricane Sandy struck New York in October 2012. In January 2013, both Fellows were redeployed to New York: Zach to New York Legal Assistance Group, and Jamie to MFY Legal Services. In New York, both Jamie and Zach were able to share what they had learned in Joplin with New York’s legal aid community. Just knowing where to start after a natural disaster is an important piece of wisdom that can only be learned through experience.

Now, after the recent Oklahoma City tornado, Zach and Jamie are ready to go again. “Literally an hour after we first saw reports of the tornado online, we were thinking about what our response might be and how we might be of service” Zach said. “A couple days after the tornado, the executive director of LAWMO put us in touch with the executive director of Legal Services of Oklahoma, and we were able to have a conference call to offer some tips and general support.” When Jamie spoke to the executive director over the phone, “he told me he had already been contacted by attorneys from around the country, including Joplin and New York,” she said. “He commented that, besides giving practical tips, these calls made him feel like he was not alone.”

Since the Oklahoma City tornado, AmeriCorps has had over 170 volunteers and Senior Corps members respond to the disaster. Zach and Jamie are on their way to Oklahoma City and Moore soon to further assist with recovery efforts. Zach is there now, from June 18-22, and Jamie will go from July 8-12. They will help the affected communities handle FEMA issues, insurance coverage matters, and other legal aid duties as needed. Thanks to AmeriCorps, lawyers like Zach and Jamie, and volunteers from across the country, the victims of the Oklahoma tornado are not alone.


Fellows on the Front

Rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy

Sara Cullinane’s Fellowship project at Make the Road New York had just started when Hurricane Sandy struck her home city in October 2012. Sara’s project, sponsored by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP Foundation, is focused on ensuring immigrant families in New York have access to quality healthcare as the Affordable Healthcare Act is implemented. The storm created an immediate and critical need to ensure immigrants in the affected areas were included in Sandy relief efforts. Sara quickly became a key player in bringing emergency relief to this vulnerable population.

Hurricane Sandy devastated the immigrant communities surrounding two of Make the Road New York's offices in Long Island and Staten Island. “In the immediate aftermath of the storm, I stepped in for a few months to help coordinate emergency relief, including coordinating legal services for the thousands of immigrant families affected by the storm, who faced barriers to accessing government and charitable relief,” Sara said. “With a team of community canvassers, many from the affected communities, our response team reached thousands of immigrant families and produced a report entitled Unmet Needs: Hurricane Sandy and Immigrant Communities in Metro New York Region.” The report was the first one ever to illustrate the effects of Hurricane Sandy on immigrant families, determined that the vast majority of immigrants in the devastated areas had not been able to access relief, and highlighted the structural barriers faced by immigrants.

Sara’s hard work on the report paid off:  “Released less than two months after the storm, it was covered by the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press and other media outlets and resulted in the New York City Mayor's Office creating a new immigrant outreach program, which I helped to design, and a housing plan for immigrant communities affected by Sandy,” said Sara. “I have since transitioned back to my regular fellowship positions, but MRNY has hired a team of six full-time disaster relief staff, including two attorneys, to work with communities on the long term recovery process.”

While New York continues to rebuild after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy, Sara says she will remember the way people came together to help each other in the midst of such hardship: “Watching neighbors from communities like Midland Beach, Staten Island stand together and support each other day in and day out to make repairs, navigate FEMA and get on the path of recovery, and the outpouring of relief from people across the country to support these efforts, was remarkable.”

As Sara’s project continues, she will further her work helping immigrant families in New York through direct representation, administrative advocacy, strategic litigation, and community education.  Her hard work will help these families access quality, affordable health care as New York implements federal health care reform. Equal Justice Works is so proud Sara’s work, from her fellowship project to her outstanding agility and willingness to provide effective help in the midst of crisis.

Educational Debt Tip of the Month

Déjà vu As Student Loan Interest Rates Set to Double

In a “deja vu all over again” moment, the interest rates on subsidized Federal Direct loans are set to double on July 1 and Congress is scrambling to find a fix. We took a close look at a number of the proposals recently in our Student Loan Ranger blog.

The best of these plans from a borrower’s perspective is the Responsible Student Loan Solutions Act (S.B. 909), sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-RI and Dick Durbin, D-IL. Here’s why.

First, the Responsible Student Loan Solutions Act sets interest rates annually but has a cap of 6.8 percent for subsidized and unsubsidized Federal Direct loans and 8.25 percent for PLUS and consolidation loans. This is a vital protection for borrowers.

Second, the act specifies that interest rates could not be set to bring in more than the total cost of administering the Federal Direct loan program and borrower benefits and would have to result in the program being revenue neutral for the next year. This is fair – the government should not be running the student loan program to make a profit.

Third, the legislation would allow borrowers with previously issued FFEL (Federal Family Education Loans) and Direct Stafford and PLUS loans to refinance and take advantage of these new rates. This is a much-needed reform for the millions of borrowers who are currently suffering from fixed high interest rate in a historically low interest rate economy.

We think that Congress will probably provide a fix before July 1, but the details will matter greatly for borrowers. If you plan to contact your Senators about this problem, ask them to co-sponsor and vote for the Responsible Student Loan Solutions Act (S.B. 909). It’s a fair fix to structural problems in the student loan system that will prevent us from having déjà vu next year. All over again.

As always, don’t forget to take advantage of the opportunities Equal Justice Works’ educational debt resources, including our free webinars and our Kindle e-book, Take Control of Your Future.