Students Spearhead Puerto Rico Relief Efforts

Three Law School students, all from Puerto Rico, are organizing a legal corps to assist in recovery.

Pictured left to right: Columbia Law School students Patricio Martínez-Llompart ’18, Eva Jiménez ’18, and Jorge García ’18 spearhead relief efforts for hurricane survivors back home in Puerto Rico.

Patricio Martínez-Llompart ’18 was lucky. Throughout Hurricane Maria, which made landfall on Martínez-Llompart’s native Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with sustained winds of 155 mph, he was able to stay in communication with his parents on the island.

“I was in my apartment in New York, tracking the storm on my computer and giving them all that information through text messages,” he said. Ultimately, his parents and a sister and her children were all safe and accounted for. “I’m very thankful.”

But Martínez-Llompart knows other Puerto Ricans were not so fortunate. That’s why he and two other Puerto Rican students at Columbia Law School—Jorge García ’18 and Eva Jiménez ’18—are spearheading relief efforts on campus. Within a week’s time, they had organized a donation drive in Jerome Greene Hall, coordinated with law firms that have committed to providing assistance, and collected contact information for more than 400 lawyers, law students, and others willing to offer help in the recovery process ahead.

“It’s been incredibly moving,” Martínez-Llompart said of the response to their efforts.

In collaboration with Mesa de Trabajo Acceso a la Justicia (Access to Justice Roundtable), and other legal service providers in Puerto Rico and on the mainland United States, Martínez-Llompart created a Google form—called Legal Corps for Puerto Rico—for people to express their interest in providing help. The form breaks future relief efforts into three categories: gathering legal knowledge and information; training opportunities for volunteers; and, finally, direct legal assistance to individuals, families, and communities in need in Puerto Rico.

Ultimately, the group would like to help organize legal “brigades” of law students and lawyers who can travel to Puerto Rico to offer assistance, including in navigating disaster relief benefits from entities like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The students are working closely with Laren E. Spirer, director of pro bono programs at Columbia Law School, who will be the point person on behalf of the administration.

García said he, Martínez-Llompart, and Jiménez began discussing what they could do immediately after the storm.

“Our first reaction was making sure that our families were okay and that we were able to communicate with our loved ones,” he said. “Then we immediately put our heads together and said how we can we leverage Columbia Law School and its impressive resources to send aid and assistance to Puerto Rico immediately.”

García, who like Martínez-Llompart and Jiménez, will begin a federal clerkship in Puerto Rico after graduation, liaised with a group of former judicial clerks from the island to help coordinate a response from law firms. Several firms are considering ways that they may get involved with relief efforts, including Covington & Burling, where García and Martínez-Llompart clerked this past summer, and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, where Jiménez clerked.

Jiménez took on the task of organizing the donation drive, which ended Thursday and included items such as diapers, baby food, batteries, and first aid supplies. She worked with other Puerto Rican students across Columbia University, including from Columbia College, the School of Social Work, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of International and Public Affairs, to maximize participation.

“Everyone is kind of sharing the feeling of being a little exasperated and helpless that we are far away,” she said. “But at the same time, this is just starting, and it feels like this will certainly not be the only thing we do moving forward. Puerto Rico is going to require a lot, and we’re creating a network of people who are going to be involved in these reconstruction efforts.”

Martínez-Llompart said his work so far on behalf of his homeland has been informed by the Racial Justice Advocacy Workshop he took with Professor Katherine M. Franke last semester, which focuses on the role of lawyers in social movements.

“My guiding principle this week has really been to just listen and learn and help without trying to run this from New York,” he said. “This is something that has to be driven from the ground. We’re there to act on what they have identified as their biggest needs.”

Related:

The New York Law Journal Features Students' Relief Efforts

Watch Katherine Franke explain her Racial Justice Advocacy course

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Posted on October 2, 2017

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