Considering Next Time

The original plan was for the ABA to hold its 2006 midyear meeting in New Orleans, just as the first parades of the Mardi Gras season were starting to roll down Canal Street in early February.

Hurricane Katrina tore up that script. The midyear meeting still took place during February, but it had to be moved from New Orleans to Chicago. And while Mardi Gras still went on, it took place in a New Orleans that was just starting to recover, along with much of the Gulf Coast, from the ravages of Katrina and her younger sister, Hurricane Rita.

While reconstruction has begun, the legal problems may be just beginning, said Eduardo R. Rodriguez of Brownsville, Texas. He was one of several Gulf Coast lawyers who described how the hurricanes devastated the region’s legal structure in a special presentation to the ABA House of Delegates during the midyear meeting.

“The disaster is just now hitting the legal profession” as lawyers struggle to rebuild their practices while representing clients with mounting problems, said Rodriguez, the president of the State Bar of Texas. “Six months or a year later, the needs will be there, and we need to remember that.”

The ABA’s response effort kicked in only days after Katrina struck Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. ABA President Michael S. Greco of Boston quickly appointed a Task Force on Hurricane Katrina chaired by past president N. Lee Cooper of Birmingham, Ala.

The ABA also established a disaster relief Web site (www.abanet.org/katrina). By mid-September, the Disaster Legal Services Team, coordinated by the Young Lawyers Division, was operating 24-hour, toll-free hotlines in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Many other ABA entities have also initiated various support efforts.

Those activities are summarized in a status report, titled “In the Wake of the Storm,” which was issued by the Katrina task force in conjunction with the midyear meeting.

Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the Katrina task force issued a report assessing whether federal, state and local laws and regulations were sufficient to deal with a disaster of Katrina’s scope.

“The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina did not occur because laws were inadequate,” the report concluded. “Lack of adequate training and readiness, failure of various entities to ensure communications and coordination, delay from inaction and breakdown of leadership all contributed.”

Nevertheless, the subcommittee recommends further study. The overriding issue identified by the report is at what stage the government response to a disaster should become primarily federal rather than state or local.

Like Katrina, Only Everywhere

That question received attention from subcommittee members who spoke at a midyear program sponsored by the Standing Committee on Law and National Security.

“The real problem may be the complexity, scale and scope of our disasters,” said John A. McCarthy, executive director of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Project at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Va.

Suzanne E. Spaulding said her concerns focus on the possibility of an avian flu pandemic.

“The implications are profound,” said Spaulding of McLean, Va., the immediate-past chair of the law and national security committee. “It will be like Katrina, except it will be everywhere at once.”

Preparedness also was a theme for the Gulf Coast lawyers who addressed the House of Delegates, including Melissa Pershing, the executive director of Legal Services Alabama, which is based in Montgomery.

“We must build coalitions,” said Pershing. “We must plan, we must learn from what we know now–because this will happen again.”

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