Triple Torment

first_imgRelief efforts stretched statewide October 1, 2004 Jan Pudlow Associate Editor Regular News Associate Editor Florida Rural Legal Services lawyers have plenty of experience helping clients deal with crises.But after Hurricane Frances battered Florida’s East Coast, employees of the Ft. Pierce FRLS are now without an office to call home and have their own disaster to overcome.The seawall behind the rented office near the Intracoastal Waterway broke, sending a muddy mix all over the floor. Then, the ceiling collapsed, so in poured even more water. There’s no power, no phone service, and no way to stay — yet their clients’ needs can’t wait.“We just heard from our landlord yesterday, and he will have to totally redo the building and that will take months and months,” Christine Larson, deputy director of FRLS, said September 15, 10 days after Ft. Pierce felt Frances’ fury.“One of my employees is sleeping in a tent in her yard. They are all heroic and under stress,” said Larson, who added that all 13 counties in the FRLS service area have been declared disaster areas by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.Meanwhile, the Ft. Pierce staff will commute to the West Palm Beach satellite office—including one paralegal who must travel 70 miles. Some closed files were damaged, but, mercifully, open files were spared water damage and have been moved. In the same building in West Palm Beach, Bill Fraser, director of litigation of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, has offered to take in FRLS employees that won’t fit into the FRLS satellite office across the hall.A similar blow was leveled on the Kissimmee office of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida.“During Charley, the hurricane ripped our roof off and completely drenched everything in the office,” said Bill Abbuehl.“The office will have to be gutted. We have had to move out and now have a temporary location several blocks away. We hope to move into our temporary location by the end of the week,” Abbuehl said September 17.“It will take at least eight months or so to get the building renovated enough that we can reuse it. Everything was damaged: computers, copy machines, and client files. We even had to send client files to a place in Atlanta to dry them out, to freeze-dry them and send them back to us.”Yet more episodes in the horrific hurricane season of 2004 that brought three killer storms ashore in Florida in just 35 days, causing dozens of deaths, leaving thousands without homes, millions without power, and racking up billions of dollars in damage.First Charley struck Southwest Florida on August 13, with a surprise sudden turn into Punta Gorda with 145-mph wind gusts, killing 27 people and causing $7 billion in damage.Three weeks later followed Frances—bringing the official death toll for the two storms to a total of 60 people, 35 of those in Florida—and leaving more than 700,000 without power north of Palm Beach more than a week after the Sept. 5 Category 2 hurricane hit on the Atlantic Coast.Rounding out the triple torment was Ivan, a major Category 4 storm with 130-mph winds.Blasting ashore at Gulf Shores, Alabama, in the wee morning hours of September 16, Ivan pummeled Florida’s Panhandle with powerful winds that crumbled a section of the Interstate 10 bridge over Escambia Bay, 10-to-16 foot storm surges that demolished beachfront homes, rainfall that swelled rivers to flood stage, and spawned a dozen tornadoes. In all, Ivan claimed at least 45 lives.The next day, on September 17, Florida Bar President-elect Alan Bookman stood in a long line at a Sam’s, one of the few stores powered by a generator, to buy Gatorade and pineapple. He was amazed the News got through on his cell phone to take his damage assessment.Though his own home fared well, Bookman said many trees crashed into houses, and there are many gaping holes in roofs. His downtown law office and courts won’t be operational for a while, he said.“Power won’t be available for three weeks, and the water and sewer systems have been destroyed,” Bookman said.“I just ran into a solo practitioner who recently opened her office here, and she doesn’t know how she’s going to pay her rent.”Looking at Pensacola’s judicial center, Bookman said, “A number of judges’ chambers windows were blown out. God knows what their indoor chambers look like.”Through it all, one hurricane after another, some Florida lawyers have gone above and beyond to help hurricane victims:• More than 650 lawyers have volunteered to help staff the toll-free hotline for hurricane victims who cannot afford to hire a lawyer: (866) 550-2929, which received about 1,200 calls as of 5 p.m. September 10, six days before Ivan struck.• Lawyers have shown up at FEMA Recovery Centers ready to volunteer for face-to-face assistance with questions ranging from insurance claims to home repair contracts to mortgage foreclosure problems to replacement of wills and other lost documents.Still other lawyers struck out on their own to deliver help and hope.The week after Charley’s ravage, the Miami law firm of Pathman Lewis packed a U-Haul truck with relief supplies — water, food, diapers, toys, batteries, food, and gas grills — and headed to Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda.“This is an important time for everyone to work together and provide assistance for our communities,” said Wayne Pathman, managing partner at Pathman Lewis.Even though it was a dozen years ago, Pathman said, “The memories of Hurricane Andrew are still fresh in our minds, and we know what the people who have just been hit by Charley are going through. Whatever help we can offer, we will.”For two days, attorneys forgot about billable hours and slept in tents, grilling hamburgers and hotdogs, and passing out supplies. They were also willing to give free legal advice to residents worried about everything from making car payments to filing insurance claims.“We know that our part is only a minor element of the unified relief efforts of thousands of people, but we wanted to do something,” added Hal Lewis, who noted the firm spent more than $15,000 in supplies and rental fees and did not bill hours to clients during this time.“What’s important here is giving people hope that there is relief and that people do care,” Pathman said.Mark Arnold, of Holland & Knight in Miami, says it’s easy to look out the window and see blue skies and sunshine and forget how huge the need remains for people in hurricane-devastated parts of the state.As the district representative of the ABA Young Lawyers Division, it’s Arnold’s job to help mobilize lawyers to coordinate volunteer activities after a disaster, through an agreement with FEMA. Arnold is coordinating that effort with the Bar’s Young Lawyers Division.“The problem is Florida has been taxed so heavily, both emotionally and economically, that we have had enough,” Arnold said. But the enormous effort to help hurricane victims is “not a one-week, two-week project. The legal problems of the victims of these hurricanes will last for months to come.”Arnold stressed there any many ways to help: “We would implore the lawyers in areas affected to help out in any and all ways they can, particularly through sister legal services, making monetary contributions, or just volunteering their time in local communities.”Before Ivan made landfall, Florida Bar YLD President Mike Faehner said: “It finally finishes the puzzle that every part of Florida gets hit with a hurricane. After Ivan goes through, every single circuit in Florida will have been affected by hurricanes. We definitely need volunteers. The concern the judges have at this point is if we don’t take care of the legal needs of these people, the courts will be bogged down in hurricane litigation. I’d like to call out to all attorneys: Look, you’ve got your paying clients, but if you have all these clients coming to court as a result of hurricanes, we are not doing anything to help the system.”Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Faehner said, “took five to six years to get rid of all of the litigation. That was just one circuit.”Proud of nearly 700 lawyers who have already stepped up to the plate for hurricane relief, Faehner noted, “That’s really exciting. But it’s only 1 percent of the members of the Bar. I think in order to effectively deal with this, if we had 4 or 5 percent, we’ll be able to stabilize the system a lot quicker.”Christine Larson, of Florida Rural Legal Services, can’t say enough to praise her staff, who continue to help people’s lives, while struggling to rebuild their own. Examples of dedicated employees flow from her lips: The pair of paralegals, Angie Vega and Maria Karlberg, who drove every day from Lakeland to Wauchula, because the FEMA Recovery Center had no one who could speak Spanish and they could. Employees in Ft. Pierce, with babies in tow, braved the damaged office, in the heat and the dark, to salvage clients’ files.And Larson herself, though she wants no special credit, pulled up a chair at a table at the FEMA Recovery Center in Port Charlotte, after Hurricane Charley devastated the area.“People come in and they are in crisis. I had some poor gentleman who rode his bike all the way to the FEMA Recovery Center to talk to us. He said his workers’ comp check was due the day Charley struck and it never came and he was behind in his rent. He wondered if that would be a defense to being evicted. I had to tell him the statute never contemplated a disaster. Sometimes the news is not very good,” Larson said. “The good news was the shelter was open and he could go sleep there.”Another woman weathered Charley inside a 1962 single-wide mobile home with her two grandchildren, only to find out that the man who owns the lot where she pays rent wants to use the land for more lucrative development. So she will have to muster the resources to haul her trailer somewhere else.On top of that, damage to the state’s citrus crops will bring even more hardship to people who work in the groves. Next, legal services lawyers brace for when insurance checks start coming in and con artists appear wanting to help spend them.“I felt good about people I was able to talk to, but felt overwhelmed about the people who didn’t know we were there,” Larson said. “The magnitude is so overwhelming.” Call goes out for more volunteer laywerscenter_img Triple Torment Triple Tormentlast_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *