February 2006 Issue
It was more than two months—nine weeks to be exact—before Patricia A. Garcia returned briefly to her law office in New Orleans’ Lakeview area after fleeing Hurricane Katrina in late August. She lives in a Houston apartment for now, and she came back to fetch whatever might be left of her files and belongings, as well as look for the same in her nearby home.
As expected, there was nothing left at the office. The water had nearly reached the ceiling and stayed for weeks. After it receded the building was gutted by cleanup crews, leaving only the skeletal frame interior of two-by-fours and electrical wiring—and the acrid presence of mold.
Now, on a foggy autumn afternoon, Garcia scans a pile of debris—mostly mashed wallboard and pink clumps of fiberglass insulation—behind the one-story bungalow where she shared space with a title company. A wall plaque from the dentist’s office next door juts from the pile.
“Oh, my diplomas,” Garcia groans with surprise when she spies the plaque. In the mental cataloging and inventory that has played over and over in her mind for a couple of months, she had missed that one. “They’re gone, too.”
Last November was an anniversary of sorts for electronic filing, a system that uses digital documents in court filings to replace the paper filings used in centuries past. The federal courts marked 10 years since the introduction of an electronic filing system, unflatteringly known by the acronym CM/ECF. It is the largest e-filing effort to date.
The Friday after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and weakened the levees that flooded New Orleans, Chief Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson had only one thing on his mind: What happened to the 100-plus people he left at the Orleans Parish courthouse to ride out the storm?
For the victims of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the truest measure of the catastrophe is that everything came apart at once.
Even those who were not physically harmed face a daunting list of problems that must be addressed before their lives can fully be put back together. And with all those problems jockeying for attention, it’s difficult to know exactly where to start picking up the pieces.
“When the waters recede, so to speak, people realize they have all these issues and need to put their lives together,” says Rani Newman Mathura, a lawyer in Greenwich, Conn., who serves as coordinator of the Disaster Legal Services Team for the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division, which has provided extensive assistance in the Gulf Coast region affected by Hurricane Katrina.
The difficulty for victims, Mathura says, is that “you’re dealing with the unknown and a loss of control. Absolutely everything is up in the air.”
Further complicating efforts to recover from Katrina is the fact that the institutional infrastructure in the Gulf Coast region was devastated along with the lives, property and businesses of residents. Government agencies were overwhelmed, courts closed and many lawyers displaced along with their clients.
The numbers only hint at the scope of the chaos that Katrina created. One early study, conducted by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., estimated total damages in the affected areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama at more than $156 billion—four times the damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The losses could result in insurance claims of up to $60 billion.
A disaster such as Hurricane Katrina imposes special demands on lawyers as well as their clients, Mathura says.
“You’re viewed not just as an attorney, but a place to go for help,” she says. “We serve as counselors” to the victims, “helping them prioritize their issues” as they start the effort to rebuild their lives. And, Mathura says, lawyers must “remember that they’re dealing with a person who didn’t just walk off the street but suffered a catastrophic disaster.”
The following articles identify some of the issues facing hurricane victims in four areas—business redevelopment, bankruptcy, real estate and insurance—but the list easily could go on.
The recovery process is likely to be different for each client, Mathura says. “It could be months. It could be years.”