Jake Weixler was hoping to learn a lot when he reported for his new Teach for America job in August 2005.
Careful what you wish for. Weixler’s school was in New Orleans, and when he arrived the city was already in the crosshairs of the burgeoning tropical storm that became Hurricane Katrina.
"I taught for about a week, and then the storm hit and I had to leave," said Weixler, now a second-year student at the Law School. By the time he was able to get back to the swamped city and resume his teaching engagement, he said, "I came back to an unlivable place."
So this spring, more than three years later, Weixler jumped at the chance to help organize a group of about 30 Michigan Law students who spent Spring Break helping the still-struggling city recover.
"I go down a couple of times a year because I’m a big fan of the city," Weixler said. "And I’m a big believer in recovery. I think New Orleans has changed forever, but it is recoverable. The economic and cultural importance of the city make it just too important not to."
This year’s crop of students from Michigan Law added to the more than 4,500 law students from around the country who have traveled to New Orleans over the past two years under the aegis of the Student Hurricane Network. As they rotate through the city, the law students collectively create a resource the area’s overtaxed legal organizations can use to help the recovery.
"People really find the work rewarding," Weixler said. "The key here is to not only draw people who are interested in public service careers, but also those who know they won’t be working in these areas, so they can experience something very, very different."
Michigan’s contingent this spring worked with a mental health advocacy group, a Gulf Coast attorney who’s trying to get federal recognition for an area Indian tribe, a Louisiana affordable energy alliance, and the New Orleans Public Defender’s Office. (Considering the Michigan students were in town during Mardi Gras week, the last group may have had the busiest schedule.)
The relief effort is supported in part by a grant from Michigan Law that covers most accommodation and travel expenses, Weixler said. The students themselves also do some fundraising to help defray expenses.
The long-term nature of the effort is helping students realize how important their contributions can be. Without the volunteer efforts of college students since the storm hit, Weixler said, rebuilding would be years behind where it stands now. And newly-minted lawyers would be less aware of urban problems that also plague cities that haven’t been flattened by a hurricane.
"What the storm did for New Orleans – obviously, it was a horrible, horrible tragedy, but the nation sort of awoke to the reality of the city … poverty, failing schools, a failing criminal justice system. So now we have sort of a social justice cottage industry of people who want to be part of this recovery effort," Weixler said. "Funding and interest are high. Political will, public scrutiny and public outrage – that’s the formula to bring in young people, so that our generation can be the ones that say ‘No. This is not acceptable.’ "