Giving back to the Gulf Coast

Matt Bradbury
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law

Spending Spring Break on a Mardi Gras trip sounds like a week unworthy of publication, that is, until you find out that UCI Law’s Pro Bono directors scheduled it. After landing in New Orleans Sunday afternoon, our group of 19 law students drove across the Gulf Coast to Biloxi, Mississippi. The town is one of the largest gaming centers in the nation, and yet both Hurricane Katrina and the British Petroleum oil spill of 2010 devastated its people and coastline. Driving through the city, the signs of damage are everywhere: empty lots where homes were swept away, significant population losses due to fears of further disaster, and a coastal economy that now depends on tourism due to the oil spill’s destruction of the ecosystem.

The Mississippi Center for Justice, though only a decade old, has become one of the more well-respected legal service providers in the region, with three office locations in Mississippi today. Groups of students volunteered at each location, but our Biloxi group was the largest contingency. With the exception of taking Tuesday off for Mardi Gras, we worked at the Center every day of the week, connecting with supervising attorneys on a variety of topics. I was fortunate enough to work on the Oil Spill track – an assignment that put me in personal contact with people who suffered either economic or medical losses from the spill. It is amazing to think that corporate negligence can possibly ruin the lives of innocent fishermen or homeowners who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is equally incredible to facilitate the recovery claims for these people.

Other students worked on issues such as housing or education, all of which highlighted the larger region’s intense history of discrimination, inequality, and opposition to federal precedent. Diving headfirst into a real case teaches you in a week what years of American history classes cannot.

It is difficult to complain about your work when you are helping people in this way. Having Mardi Gras interrupt our week made complaining even more difficult. Through near-freezing temperatures and pouring rain, parades and tourists swamped Biloxi on Tuesday, creating a celebration unlike many others. When we returned to New Orleans Friday, spending the afternoon in the Big Easy as we awaited our return flight, the remnants of a wild week lingered. This is a region with immense cultural pride, a beleaguered shoreline that still manages to put on a show for its guests year after year. The clients and coast may forget us, but we won’t soon forget our week there.

Just as the upperclassmen recommended the trip to me, I highly recommend this trip to others and urge them to apply next year.