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UB law students dispensing bottled water, and legal aid, in Puerto Rico trip

Kim Diana Connolly knew almost immediately that the University at Buffalo School of Law should play a role in Puerto Rico's recovery from a devastating hurricane.

Television images of the Sept. 20 storm revealed that Puerto Ricans would need plenty of disaster relief assistance very quickly. But Connolly, a professor and vice dean who directs the law school's clinical legal education program, recognized something else.

"The night Maria hit, I was watching the pictures of what was happening, and I thought to myself, right now they need the help that all the people who do first response are going to do," she said. "But a couple months from now, they're going to need lawyers.' "

The Category 4 hurricane wiped out power that still has not been restored on parts of the island, leaving many residents without running water and contaminating much of the island's water supply.

A group of UB Law School students will arrive in San Juan on Sunday – four months after Hurricane Maria hit – to provide legal aid on the island of 3.4 million residents. One of their primary tasks will be assisting residents who were denied Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster aid with their appeals. The clinic team also will give legal guidance on accessing other benefits, employment issues, elder law and whatever other urgent circumstances arise during a 10-day visit.

"We think it's very important that first and foremost we listen to what people say they need and make sure that what we are doing is tailored to actually meet those purposes," said Amanda Oppermann, a third-year law student from the Town of Tonawanda. "I think one thing this clinic is trying to be very mindful of is that we don't want to go there and impose our view of what we think Puerto Rico needs."

In preparation for the trip, Oppermann, 24, has been delving deeper into employment law and what kinds of rights employees maintain even when a natural disaster affects their employer.

"But it's very possible I could go down and not encounter that issue," she said.

Law school alumni and members of the Buffalo legal community donated more than $50,000 to defray student travel costs and to pay for a staff attorney who also will be on the trip.

The 10 UB students will be based in San Juan and are scheduled to accompany a Puerto Rican legal aid organization on five "brigades" to various spots on the island. In addition to their legal skills, the students will be supplying basic necessities such as bottled water and solar-powered lights to clients who need them.

The FEMA appeals are a big issue because many residents who speak and read only Spanish initially received FEMA applications that were in English. They hurriedly completed the forms without thoroughly understanding them and were then denied aid. The appeals process is even more complicated.

The students "will be able to help local lawyers do a larger volume of appeals or a larger volume of some direct service," said Connolly.

In addition, students will be doing on-the-ground research on environmental issues, which they will then study even further upon returning to Buffalo Jan. 31.

"One of the big commitments I have to our community partners and our clients there is that our students aren't going to get off the plane and be done. They're going to get off the plane and still have a whole other credit's worth or work to do in February," said Connolly.

Some students will work on legal "white papers" potentially to submit to Congress, other legislative bodies or state and federal agencies. Other students will complete in Western New York work that they started with clients in Puerto Rico.

One of the law students in the clinic was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Jonathan J. Reyes Colon, a second-year law student who completed his undergraduate studies in Puerto Rico, arrived on the island several days in advance to help with final preparations.

Connolly also turned to Luis Chiesa, a criminal law professor in the law school who is a Puerto Rican native, for help in quickly developing the clinic and connecting with people on the island. Chiesa is serving as academic consultant to the group.

Students spent more than two weeks receiving intensive training from UB faculty, alumni and other legal experts, including attorneys in Puerto Rico. Some of the sessions focused on the law, but many of them were aimed at helping students to become more culturally aware and to understand how to work in a disaster area with clients who have experienced trauma.

"In addition to how to file a FEMA claim, how to file a FEMA appeal – the legal stuff – if this clinic or members of the clinic are asked to tarp or provide assistance with hot meals or food and water, whatever it may be, ultimately if that's how we can make an impact, that's what we're going to do," said David Yovanoff, a third-year student from Hamburg.

Like many of the students in the clinic, Yovanoff never before visited Puerto Rico, but he has a connection. Some of Yovanoff's college buddies are from Puerto Rico, and they reached out for support for the island following the storm. Some of them mentioned that their families were split up by the hurricane devastation. Others talked about the 90 percent destruction of the jungle areas of the island.

"They really stressed that the situation is dire and if you can donate money or help and assist somehow, please do," said Yovanoff. "It was about a day's separation in between their asking for support and the revealing that UB was doing the clinic. So the timing was perfect, and it just made sense that this was something I was almost destined to do."

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