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University of Iowa News Release

Sept. 23, 2005

UI Law Professors See Changes In American Law, Society Post-Katrina

Hurricane Katrina and the government's haphazard response to the destruction it caused will likely lead to profound changes in American law and self-perception, according to a panel of University of Iowa law professors convened at the UI College of Law Thursday.

"With Katrina, Americans finally saw some of the issues that people around the world deal with," said Enrique Carrasco, an expert in international development issues. He said New Orleans and Louisiana both tend to exhibit traits more commonly seen in developing countries, including high poverty rates, poor education systems, poor infrastructure, a large wealth gap and political corruption, all of which contributed to the disaster.

Carrasco also said that for the city's reconstruction to be successful, the city's residents have to take ownership in it. The best way to do that, he said, is for contractors to hire local workers for the rebuilding, and not bring in low-wage workers from outside the Gulf Coast area.

Lea VanderVelde, an expert in property laws, said one new set of post-Katrina laws that might be considered by governments in the United States are rights of necessity laws. Laws like this give people immunity from such property violation laws as theft or trespassing if their survival depends on breaking the law.

"For instance, if someone needs a roof to stand on, you can't charge them with trespassing to get there," she said. Many other countries have had similar laws in place for years but the United States has never considered them because Americans have never faced disaster on the epic scale of those countries, such as world wars, she said.

Adrien Wing, an expert in civil rights law, said that the public perception of the disaster further exposed the racial gulf between black and white Americans. She pointed to a survey that showed more than half of black Americans felt the federal government was slow to move in New Orleans because most of the flood's victims were blacks, while only a small number of whites believed that.

"Many issues resonate differently in African-American communities than in white American communities, and this is one of them," she said. Wing also noted that while many Gulf Coast evacuees have been called "refugees," they are not. To be considered a refugee, Wing said a person must be forced from one country to another by a disaster. The Gulf Coast evacuation does not have an international component.

Tung Yin, a constitutional law and federalism expert, said comparisons between how governments handled the aftermath of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina are not always fair because New York and New Orleans faced different situations. On September 11, for instance, only a small portion of Manhattan was affected by the World Trade Center collapse, while the rest of the city continued functioning. In New Orleans, the city ceased to be a functioning entity because 80 percent of it was underwater.

He also said Katrina pointed out a frustration with federalism, which divides government power between the federal and state governments. The city, state and federal governments all had responsibilities to keep New Orleanians safe, and none performed well.

"We don't know who to hold responsible for this so we can vote out the people who made mistakes and replace them with people who will make improvements," he said.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010, tom-snee@uiowa.edu.