As Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf States last summer, Jason Ryan grappled with a personal grief of his own. Ryan, an associate with Baker Botts in Houston, heard the news of his grandmother’s death from liver cancer on August 29, the day Katrina hit the coast. While making arrangements for the funeral, he also learned that his grandmother’s sister, who lived in the Bay St. Louis area of Mississippi, died in the hurricane.
“Our family was in crisis,” Ryan remembers. This double tragedy fell just as the hurricane was driving tens of thousands from their homes. When Ryan returned to the Baker Botts offices a week later, he stepped right into pro bono efforts to help the afflicted evacuees.
More than 125,000 sought shelter in the Houston area in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Ryan was shocked when he saw the Astrodome filled with evacuees. “It’s overwhelming once you get in there and see how many people are in there,” he says.
But losing their homes was only the beginning of the evacuees’ problems. Many of the homeless found themselves in Houston with troubles ranging from bankruptcy to insurance problems to parole restrictions.
To make matters worse, the city was completely unprepared for so many homeless people. “We didn’t really have a plan in place for this [size] of event,” Ryan says. Nevertheless, the legal community quickly mobilized, and in the weeks following the evacuation, more than 300 lawyers volunteered legal assistance.
They opened legal aid centers at the George R. Brown convention center and the Astrodome/Reliant Arena area, the city’s largest shelters. Ryan and many other attorneys put in 17-hour days. “We were trying to attack [evacuees’ problems] on so many different fronts,” he says.
Ryan knew that finding a lawyer might not be the first thing on the minds of the evacuees. “Their initial reaction was ‘we don’t need help, we don’t need a lawyer,’” he says. “What we offered was counseling, rather than just providing legal advice.” Many of the evacuees needed answers to simple questions such as how to make sure they got their child support or how to find a temporary address in Houston. Ryan says the volunteers were there to listen and problem-solve.
Though they didn’t have a plan before the storm hit, Houston’s pro bono leaders moved quickly to make one. Through the combined efforts of Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program Inc. (HVLP) and the Houston Bar Association (HBA), lawyers from around Greater Houston established a strategy to meet the Katrina evacuees’ needs. David Mandell, the executive director of HVLP, spearheaded the campaign.
On August 31, two days after the storm struck, Mandell met with Barrett Reasoner, the chair of HVLP’s board of directors, and Randall Sorrels, the president of the HBA, and the three started asking what they could do. “By 6 o’clock the next morning, we had drafted a project plan,” he says.
More than 300 volunteers packed the conference room at Baker Botts in downtown Houston throughout the day on September 6. Bill Kroger, head of Baker Botts’ pro bono committee and president of the Houston Bar Foundation, played a key role in organizing along with David Mandell and Jason Ryan. He remembers seeing lawyers show up from all different walks of life. “You had the U.N. in terms of religion and ethnicity,” he says with a laugh, adding, “but the thing they had in common was they genuinely wanted to help.”
Once they had their volunteers, the next problem was figuring out what to do with them. “We had all these volunteers ready to go,” Kroger says, but then he realized, “what are we supposed to do? It wasn’t like we had 300 cases lined up. We didn’t want to lose the initial enthusiasm, so we started assigning volunteers to specific shelters.”
After setting up a legal hotline for evacuees and establishing booths in the major evacuation centers, Jason Ryan and others started assembling a list of small shelters. They established mobile teams of volunteers to seek out evacuees at churches, motels and other meeting points. Their list of shelters was so comprehensive that, says Ryan, “at one point [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] asked for our list.”
It was an exhausting experience. Then, the situation worsened. Houston had to be evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Rita. Ryan worked as long as he could, but says, “I had to eventually leave if I wanted to stay married.” He and his wife stayed with family near El Campo, Texas. “When you’ve been helping evacuees, it definitely hits home to become one yourself,” Ryan says.
Ryan grew up an hour southwest of Houston “out in the middle of nowhere,” as he describes it. His father worked as a rice farmer between stints working in his family oil business.
With his two brothers, Ryan spent most of his weekends helping his grandfather and father farm and take care of their animals. When he wasn’t on the farm, he played football for the El Campo Rice Birds.
Despite his agricultural roots, Ryan isn’t surprised he ended up a lawyer. “I was largely influenced by television,” he says. “I grew up with LA Law and the other law TV shows.”
Ryan studied information systems at the University of Texas, and at the height of the ’90s tech boom, he was almost lured into the business world. He resisted the temptation, though. “If I didn’t go straight into law school, I knew I never would,” he says.
Ryan met his future wife, Megan, in high school, but the two didn’t start dating right away. Despite Megan being a Texas A&M Aggie and Jason being a Longhorn, the two fell in love and were married in December 2000. But the wedding didn’t exactly have a fairy-tale beginning.
After the rehearsal dinner, Jason, his bride-to-be and his future father-in-law ended up on IVs in the El Campo emergency room, suffering from food poisoning. “We had the shortest ceremony we could have and still say it was legal,” he jokes. The two didn’t start recovering until they left for their honeymoon a week later. As they set out for their cruise from San Juan, Ryan ordered his first proper meal since the food poisoning. “I ordered some chicken soup because that seemed safe,” he says. “But when they brought it out, I lifted the lid and saw a whole chicken in there and I about lost it.”
The couple eventually settled in Houston, where his wife worked as an IT auditor and he started as an associate with Baker Botts. Ryan says that practicing utilities law has little to do with his father’s working in the oil industry. “That’s just something I happened into,” he says. Growing up in South Texas, he says the energy industry “is unavoidable; it’s everywhere.”
When Ryan came to Baker Botts five years ago, Bill Kroger quickly recognized his passion for pro bono work. Kroger would know — it’s the same excitement about pro bono work that he brought when he first came to the firm.
Kroger started at Baker Botts in 1989 with a vision for building a pro bono practice at the firm. When he became a partner, the board at Baker Botts offered full support for his idea of a pro bono committee.
Now, Kroger and Ryan work together to direct the firm’s lawyers to where they can be most effective.
For all their efforts, Jason Ryan and Bill Kroger see their Hurricane Katrina work as something far beyond a single event. Both notice a growing interest in pro bono work, not simply at Baker Botts — where pro bono hours have doubled in the past few years — but also in the Houston community. They see a growing movement in Houston of lawyers wanting to give back to their community.
Concerning Jason Ryan’s work on Hurricane Katrina, David Mandell still can’t say enough. “He was tireless,” Mandell says. “You sometimes had to send him home.” Ryan, though, doesn’t see it as particularly remarkable. “You just do your pro bono work with the same amount of effort and zeal that you do with your regular clients.” He says it like a mantra and he puts it into practice with the same steadfastness.