On Thursday, March 14, the Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship Program hosted its annual Sparer Public Interest Law Forum at Brooklyn Law School. The event, entitled “Legal Perspectives on Disaster Preparedness and Pro Bono Assistance After Hurricane Sandy,” was planned by Sparer Fellows Lee Wellington ’13, Erin Ogburn ’14, and other members of the Sparer Leadership Group. It provided law students, faculty, and community members with an opportunity to reflect on the legal issues presented by Sandy and the future planning required to address and protect against storm-related consequences.
Panel discussions focused on New York City’s particular vulnerability to storm surges as a result of climate change and planning decisions; how regulatory controls, such as zoning and design guidelines, can make cities like New York more resilient to severe storm events; and how neighborhood-based approaches, as well as litigation, are being applied to reach and support affected communities in need of legal assistance.
After a welcome by Brooklyn Law School Dean Nicholas W. Allard and Sparer Fellowship Director Professor Liz Schneider, the event began with a panel discussion moderated by Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss regarding direct services and community organizing in the storm’s aftermath. Eddie Bautista of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (EJA), as well as Brooklyn Law School (and Sparer) alums Katie Brennan ‘ 00, of the Legal Aid Society and Jane Landry-Reyes ’93, of South Brooklyn Legal Services, shared insights into their own advocacy work.
Landry-Reyes was on site in the Rockaways after the storm to set up Legal Aid Society mobile units for clients impacted by the storm and reported woeful living conditions. “Many of our clients live on the fringes of society,” she said. “Not having access to food stamps and other benefits after the storm was a sizable concern for them. NYCHA’s emergency response was also inadequate. We had clients without heat or electricity for more than six weeks after the storm. When we arrived, our Community Development Unit found the impact on small businesses had been insurmountable.”
“If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” Bautista said. “As the city responds to Sandy, it is the EJA’s job is to be at the table.” The metaphor served as a well-received advocacy adage to attendees. Panelists called for long-term policies—not “Band-Aid” quick fixes—that address the City’s infrastructure and service provisions.
Seth W. Pinsky, president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, delivered the event’s keynote address. He used the opportunity to lay out the goals and preliminary findings of Mayor Bloomberg’s “Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resilience,” which include: determining what went wrong during Sandy; preparing for the City’s future in light of climate change; and assessing how the City should rebuild post-Sandy. He reported early findings that reveal greater vulnerability than was predicted for the City in FEMA’s initial 100- and 500-year flood-plane plans, created in 1983. And he cautioned that the cost of inaction in addressing the effects of climate change and rising sea level would be prohibitive. “Our response will cost a lot up front. We will be tested,” he said, “but we can and will overcome our challenges.”
The final panel, moderated by Brooklyn Law School Professor Gregg Macey, focused on policy, climate change, and land use planning. Terri Matthews of the NYC Department of Design and Construction and Howard Slatkin of the NYC Department of City Planning provided updates on recent research and planning initiatives by their respective agencies. Slatkin pointed specifically to the value of Mayor Bloomberg’s post-Sandy Executive Order in relaxing certain zoning restrictions to incentivize rebuilding after the storm, and described the lessons learned through that order by planners. Providing what he called a more esoteric perspective in the midst of discussion of on-the-ground agency initiatives, Brooklyn Law School Professor Christopher Serkin examined the potential affirmative obligations of government to take action in response to climate change under the Takings Clause.
Attendees left the Forum critically considering who should bear the cost burdens of future reforms, and more fully aware of the current and future needs of individuals and the City in the wake of Sandy.
By Dacia Read ’14