Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2005-10-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

The disaster along the Gulf Coast has ably illustrated the resilience and compassion of the human spirit. Amid scenes of death and destruction, stories of courage and survival, followed by an unprecedented outpouring of public support, infuse us with a renewed sense of hope.

Lawyers can take enormous pride in the instantaneous offers of help from the entire legal community. The ABA and virtually every state and local bar association immediately activated legal disaster plans to assist stricken communities and scattered victims. The New York legal community, with lessons learned from 9/11, has been particularly generous in its support. New York's court system has joined the relief efforts by establishing a contingent of 400 volunteer court officials to provide emergency assistance with such diverse needs as security, records recovery, communications and technology. Here at NYCLA, working in partnership with minority bar groups, we organized a food drive to support America's Second Harvest as it coordinates national efforts to bring food and supplies to the victims of Katrina. As soon as the rescue and recovery phase of the relief effort concludes, and the long-term needs of the victims become clear, NYCLA will be implementing a variety of pro bono initiatives. We expect to provide legal assistance with basic needs, such as acquiring new identity documents, as well as with more complex ones, such as dealing with financial and insurance institutions in order to obtain forbearances, and bankruptcy filings.

But even as we celebrate the tenacity of those who endured this calamity and applaud the generosity of those who opened their hearts, we must ask some hard questions of our leaders and ourselves. Respect for the dead, the injured and the displaced demands no less. The disaster raises fundamental questions about how we implement public policy in this country. More importantly, it forces us to ask whether government has let us down or, whether through indifference or the ignorant exercise of the prerogatives of citizenship, we have the government we deserve.

These questions are not defined by partisanship or ideology. The deficiencies we saw in the wake of Katrina may be justly attributed to local, state and federal governments, without regard to party or philosophy. The failure was general. More disturbing than the chaos that followed the calamity was the humdrum, routine politicization of public policy that preceded the storm. This was the most predicted and anticipated calamity in American history. New Orleans's susceptibility to a cataclysmic flood was forecast with amazing precision by climatologists, geologists and engineers. It was ludicrous, in the dark days following the failure of the levees, to hear public officials call this an unexpected natural disaster. Every rational, modestly informed person knew of the dire predictions. Still, nothing was done.

Despite the warnings, the urgent funding requests of the Army Corps of Engineers to upgrade the levees that hold back Lake Pontchartrain have been slashed. A former Republican congressman, Michael Parker, was removed as head of the Corps when he protested the project's inadequate funding. The Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, charged with improving the drainage systems in New Orleans, was given only a fraction of its budget request. Fundamental scientific concerns about global warming, and the potential consequences for huge swaths of America lying along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, have long been obscured by politics. Early this year, Rick Piltz, a senior official with the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, resigned amid concerns about governmental attempts to impede forthright communication on the state of climate science. And in June, Philip Cooney, chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, stepped down amid reports he had edited documents to minimize the consequences of global warming.

We can dismiss the increasing frequency and severity of tropical storms as aberrational. But it is also possible that the dire predictions are correct. Experts of all stripes have been raising the alert level for years, while political leaders of all stripes have remained indifferent. The heartwarming response to the plight of Katrina's victims highlights the triumph of the human spirit. But the negligence of officials who failed to act responsibly, before and after the calamity, exposes stark human fallibility. Though it is tempting to seek comfortable insulation from the scenes of death and misery that gripped New Orleans by foisting blame upon government officials, we must face a brutal truth: in an informed democracy, the ultimate responsibility for failed public policy rests as much with the people as with their elected leaders.

In the wake of this tragedy, it is time for the American people to ask more of their government and themselves. Lawyers have no special duty to right the wrongs of society, but with our gift of advanced education and training in reason and logic, we should lead this country above the partisan ineptitude that threatens the health, safety and security of our people. Wisdom and sacrifice in the face of a national calamity are laudable. Those same qualities are also essential in the formulation of public policy if we are to avert future predictable catastrophes.


Norman Reimer