In Mississippi: Wind, Water, and a Flood of Legal Issues
Race and poverty have been stinging topics for decades, peaking during the civil rights and anti-poverty movements of the 1960s. Hurricane Katrina swept them back into national view.

In Mississippi, these issues are playing out in the legal system, where a new public-interest law firm is aiding thousands of hurricane victims. “Katrina uncovered a lot of fault lines in how we haven’t approached issues of poverty and continued discrimination,” says Martha Bergmark ’70, founding president of the nonprofit Mississippi Center for Justice.

Bergmark grew up in Mississippi; her parents worked for civil rights during the years when the quest for racial justice could get you killed. After Oberlin, she pursued a career helping poor people get their day in court. She rose to the presidency of the Legal Services Corporation, a federal program that funds legal aid programs. In 1990, she was awarded the Kutak-Dodds Prize for civil rights work in her home state.
After more than a decade away, Bergmark returned to Mississippi three years ago. She found a state that had shed much, though not all, of its ugly past. Then came Katrina.

The storm set in motion a conflict between businesses such as casinos, hotels, oil companies, and condominium developers and the coastal residents, often poor and often black, uprooted by Katrina. In a recent eminent domain decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government can give a person’s property to a private developer as long as the developer builds something worth more than whatever was on the land before.

Many homeowners are also entangled in disputes with insurance companies, which contend the damage was caused by flooding, not hurricane winds, and therefore not covered. Without insurance payments, many can’t afford to rebuild.

Thus the stage has been set for protracted legal disputes to determine how the coast will be rebuilt.
Mississippi was without a public-interest law firm for years until the Center for Justice opened. As volunteer lawyers manned the center’s offices, hurricane victims poured through its doors.

“There were 2,500 intake sheets in the first six weeks after Katrina,” says Bergmark. “That’s a huge volume given that people were occupied with survival.”

As clients arrived, it became obvious that many were uneducated and therefore at the mercy of just about everyone. Bergmark told of one woman who needed help with an insurance claim. The woman could not read her policy and had turned to her 10-year-old daughter for help.

“Our lawyer had to tell the woman that because she had cashed an $800 settlement check, she might have waived her claim to anything more significant,” says Bergmark. “The daughter looked at her mother and said, ‘I guess I didn’t read that paragraph.’” This is the legacy of illiteracy and poverty that leaves people almost defenseless.”

Mississippi is the poorest state and ranks 49th among the states in terms of spending on education, Bergmark notes. “While this is sad, Katrina has presented an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the problem and see if we can’t fix it.”