Thursday, August 31, 2006

Greetings from Biloxi, Mississippi, home base for the Equal Justice Works Katrina Legal Fellow sponsored by ACC

I am Reilly Morse, a third-generation Mississippi attorney with the

Mississippi Center for Justice. MCJ is our only independent home-grown, home-owned statewide public interest lawfirm. Its focus is social and economic justice. Our headquarters is in the state capitol, Jackson. In December, 2005, MCJ opened its first branch office in Biloxi to assist with the legal needs of hurricane victims across the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

ACC’s sponsorship of my position at MCJ has assured there will be a voice speaking for the lowest-income residents in the poorest state in the nation impacted by the worst hurricane in American history. Thank you for this indispensable resource.

Traditionally, MCJ focuses on impact litigation rather than direct services. However, Hurricane Katrina destroyed offices and residences of coastal legal services centers, and so MCJ stepped in to help fill the gap. In cooperation with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and an array of volunteer lawyers from the smallest firms to national corporate law departments, MCJ manned disaster recovery centers and conducted over 20 disaster recovery workshops in impacted minority communities across the coast. We worked on FEMA benefits, SBA loans, insurance, evictions, foreclosures, contract disputes, and more. To get an idea of what we faced, take a look at MCJ’s short film, New Foundations and the Lawyers Committee’s short film, The New Homeless.

The voice for vulnerable storm victims was also heard in official chambers through my participation in the Affordable Housing Sub-Committee of the Governor’s Commission, and the Governor’s Housing Policy Council. Working with national and local partners, MCJ also presented comments to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development urging greater equity in Mississippi’s plans to use federal hurricane recovery funds and gathered thousands of supporting signatures.

MCJ played a pivotal role in the formation of an alliance of over 30 service organizations focusing on low-income and minority populations known as the Steps Coalition. “Steps” draws its inspiration from the concrete steps that alone remain after a hurricane. The Steps Alliance was highlighted at a joint Oxfam-America – NAACP Town Meeting in Gulfport on August 26, 2006, attended by the heads of Oxfam, NAACP, the Lawyers Committee, and actor/activist Danny Glover. I was a member of the local panel of experts which followed.

I contributed a section on predatory lending to “Envisioning A Better Mississippi,” the NAACP report on Hurricane Katrina. I also was acknowledged in Oxfam America’s “Forgotten Communities, Unmet Promises” report.

In the coming weeks, I hope to interest ACC members in augmenting these efforts with pro bono assistance on tax, corporate, and real estate aspects of the Hurricane Katrina recovery.

Written By:
Reilly Morse
ACC's Equal Justice Works Katrina Fellow
through the Equal Justice Works Program

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