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Midyear Meeting

What Katrina Can Teach Lawyers About Disaster Preparedness; FEMA Grants $1.7M to Preserve Records

Posted Feb 3, 2012 8:40 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Judge Madeleine Landrieu of Louisiana’s court of appeals was a civil trial judge in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005.

She was among 16 out of the civil court’s 18 judges who lost their homes in the disaster. Landrieu evacuated with her family and moved them into her sister’s crowded home. The city she left behind was devastated. Civil court records weren’t accessible. The court website was down. Communications were impossible. Lawyers were unavailable.

Landrieu recounted her experiences on Friday in an ABA Midyear Meeting program that used the Katrina experience to teach about disaster preparedness. Also speaking was U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Wells Roby, who lost her home and relocated temporarily to Houston, where she worked at the federal courthouse and lived in the pool house owned by U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas.

Landrieu says she realized civil courts had to be officially closed to avoid the statute of limitations from running before civil litigants could file suit. The governor signed emergency orders that allowed the courts to handle emergency matters only during the down time. When courts reopened in early October, they were overwhelmed with insurance claims and problems caused by missing records. Few jurors were available, and criminal courts got precedence.

Landrieu was able to locate backup tapes of missing civil case management records by happenstance when she was looking for a new house. The person showing the home mentioned that a family member worked at the security center where the tapes were located.

Landrieu advised audience members to put disaster preparedness on their calendars and to meet with their employees on a quarterly basis to discuss the plans. Too often, she said, disaster planning is “like shopping early for Christmas. It never really gets done.”

Landrieu and Roby offered this advice:

• Back up computer systems in a location outside your office.

• Keep a list of employees’ home phone numbers and personal email accounts, along with contact numbers for their nearest relatives. Make sure your employees know about your disaster plan.

• Use direct deposit so checks will arrive when mail service is not working.

• Keep your computer information on laptops that can be taken with you when a quick evacuation is needed.

• Keep your online information in the cloud.

Landrieu relayed some good news during the program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced today a $1.7 million grant to help preserve historical courthouse records damaged in Katrina flooding. The records include evidence of land transfers, mortgages and estates, according to a press release.

The ABA Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section was primary sponsor of the program, “When the Levees Broke: Lessons Learned from Judicial and Governmental Response to Hurricane Katrina.”

Prior coverage:

ABA Journal: “What Did Katrina Teach Us?”

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