This article was written by Lorelei Laird and published in the February 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title “Storm Troopers: When Harvey and Irma hit the US mainland, the legal community rose to the occasion.”

 

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There’s no good time for your office to explode. But when it happened to Lone Star Legal Aid, the timing could not have been better.

Thanks to Houston’s widespread flooding from Hurricane Harvey that day—Monday, Aug. 28—no one had come to the office. Law student Elizabeth Amaya, an intern at Lone Star, happened to live two blocks away and spotted flames shooting out of what had been glass walls. She took a photo, which quickly reached Lone Star’s attorneys, who were spread out across the city, helping Houstonians with their hurricane-related legal problems.

The fire took out Lone Star’s phone and email systems and other resources just as the agency was gearing up for a major disaster response effort. Right after the fire, Lone Star attorneys operating in hurricane shelters were working at a makeshift table made of a board atop two cardboard boxes with the words “Legal Aid” written on them with a felt-tip pen. Those who weren’t in shelters worked from home (if they hadn’t flooded), using cell phones and free web-based email accounts.

Lone Star attorneys soon discovered that they had a lot of friends in Texas. When they couldn’t answer calls to a statewide legal advice hotline, their colleagues at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid took over. Law firms and nonprofits throughout Houston donated office space to some of Lone Star’s units. Private attorneys got their legal aid colleagues loaner computers, kept them supplied with flyers to give out and—perhaps most importantly—put out the call for pro bono volunteers. Then they reported to those shifts in large numbers.

Woman on phone
Saundra Brown. Photo by Todd Spoth.

LAWYERS REACHING OUT

Attorneys affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma have risen to the occasion in ways personal, professional and altruistic, even when dealing with storm damage of their own. And then another hurricane hit, and the need for legal assistance became even greater after Maria swept over the Virgin Islands and tore directly through Puerto Rico, where the destruction has far exceeded that of the U.S. mainland. In the weeks after Maria, Puerto Rico has been addressing its most vital needs first, including delivery of food and water and restoration of electricity. The mountain of legal needs that comes with the devastation isn’t far behind. (See “Across the Water,” on how the ABA is helping coordinate legal assistance on the islands.)

On the mainland, legal aid attorneys reported for duty seven days a week, mindful of the storms’ effects on the neediest. Attorneys in Florida and Texas volunteered in large numbers to help disaster survivors and opened their offices to fellow lawyers who found themselves with no place to go. In the name of due process, judges, prosecutors, and public defenders rode out the storms at work.

And in the aftermath, all the players in the legal system have committed to making justice work—even under conditions that are less than ideal as the communities hardest hit continue their recovery.

“There’s no way any one person can do this,” says Saundra Brown, who manages Lone Star’s disaster response unit. “Remember the Timex watch [advertisement]—it takes a licking and keeps on ticking? Or the Energizer bunny? We just keep going.”

Here are some of those stories.

KEEPING THE WHEELS OF JUSTICE MOVING

On Sunday, Aug. 27, Hans Nielsen was sleeping on a couch in Houston’s main criminal courthouse when a colleague woke him. It was time to evacuate. Nielsen, a deputy district attorney with Harris County, was in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center because he’d volunteered to work during Hurricane Harvey. He and his colleagues got overtime pay for helping with overnight police needs, and the center seemed like a safe place to ride out the storm. After it was flooded by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, the county had installed 4-foot watertight doors.

When Nielsen woke up, the water was 2 feet over those doors. The flooding had also pushed sewage into the building and burst pipes in the upper stories. “It was kind of game over at that point,” says Nielsen, chief of his office’s juvenile division.

To evacuate, the 30-plus people in the courthouse had to cross two streets filled with knee-deep, opaque brown water that had spilled over from Buffalo Bayou a block away. To keep evacuees from stumbling on unseen obstacles, authorities rigged a rope line for them to follow. Carrying their essentials in garbage bags, they followed the line to the nearby Juvenile Justice Center, where they stayed for three more sweaty days—the air conditioning went out—until the flood receded enough for replacements to arrive.

Public lawyers like Nielsen, and the judges they work with, have been doing their jobs in less-than-ideal conditions since Harvey and Irma. Even after the hurricanes, damage to some courtrooms and offices has meant making unusual accommodations to keep the wheels of justice turning.

Harris County fared better than some coastal parts of Texas where buildings were destroyed. As of January, courts from Aransas County were still operating out of borrowed buildings. Florida did a little better after Irma, although cities north of the storm’s landfall suffered unexpected flooding, which forced a court in the Daytona Beach area to relocate.

Nonetheless, the damage is still extensive in Harris County. Harvey rendered the Criminal Justice Center unusable for at least nine months, which has meant finding new homes for the main offices of the district attorney and public defender, as well as 36 criminal courts. Nielsen says his colleagues, who were almost entirely housed in the center, are now sharing other county offices throughout the city.

An even bigger problem—and not just for prosecutors—was the fact that jury trials ground to a halt until mid-October. Because the underground Jury Assembly Room was ruined, jurors couldn’t be called. When trials resumed, judges were expecting them to proceed much more slowly than usual, thanks to the limited courtroom space. In a system with a Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial—playing out in a county of 4.5 million people—that has created a lot of pressure.

To ease that pressure, Harris County Criminal District Judge Marc Carter tried to avoid setting cases for trial. His colleague, District Judge Jim Wallace, believes prosecutors were trying to help by offering defendants favorable deals. Though Wallace doesn’t exactly approve—he’s a former prosecutor and police officer—he says he’s not granting the kinds of delays that were once routine.

“Our trial docket is getting larger by the moment,” he says. “The reality of it is: If we can’t find a better way to try more cases, they’ll be sitting in jail for quite some time.”

Man talking
Judge Marc Carter. Photo by Todd Spoth.

Judges say defense attorneys have been understanding about the situation. Tucker Graves, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said in the months after the storm he’s heard complaints from some lawyers about the slow speed of trials. But Graves credits judges for recognizing the problem by setting the oldest jail cases for trial first.

Carter and Wallace have a lot of time to compare notes because they’re sharing a courtroom. When the Criminal Justice Center was destroyed, judicial authorities moved all 36 criminal judges into courtrooms designed for their civil colleagues, sitting two to a courtroom. To make room, the civil judges also doubled up. Wallace and Carter ended up sharing a courtroom at the Civil Justice Center.

Sharing a bench isn’t that much of a hassle, but being in a civil courthouse has been a major problem for criminal cases. The civil courthouse has no direct physical connection to the county jail and no cells for holding in-custody defendants. Thus, it initially was used only for hearings involving defendants out on bond.

For jailed defendants, hearings were being conducted in a makeshift courtroom at the jail—actually a series of long folding tables in a large open room. It’s loud, and privileged attorney-client conversations are conducted within everyone’s earshot. And because the public is not admitted inside, families must watch via closed-circuit television at the civil courthouse. Judges presiding over these hearings take turns visiting the jails.

People are doing their best, the judges say—but all the same, they’re concerned about how this will play out in the long run. They’d like to move back into the Criminal Justice Center as soon as they can, even if that means walking around construction.

“Yeah, we’re going to be inconvenienced,” Carter says with a laugh, “but … we would prefer to be inconvenienced in our old building because it would just serve the criminal justice system and the citizens of Harris County better.”

Building aftermath
Photo by Todd Spoth.

THE AFTERMATH: Proof of Hurricane Harvey is everywhere. 

For public defender Robert Lockwood of Florida’s 16th Judicial District, the problem was not a lack of courthouses—it was getting there. His district encompasses the Florida Keys, a series of islands south of Miami, strung like beads along 110 miles of U.S. Route 1. It’s the only way to drive through the Keys, and after Hurricane Irma, it was lined with downed trees, washing machines and other detritus thrown around by winds as high as 130 mph. There was also a shortage of fuel—and Lockwood had sheltered in a hotel ballroom in Key West, 50 miles from where a makeshift court had been set up in Marathon. He had to call on favors to get the necessary gasoline.

Though new arrests were minimal after the storm, he says, a bigger problem was the inmates already in jail, who had all been evacuated to Palm Beach County. That’s a five-hour drive away, and the evacuation dragged on for two weeks. Although the Florida Supreme Court had suspended legal deadlines for the hurricane, Lockwood didn’t like holding people for so long without charges—or in some cases, past their release dates.

So Lockwood convinced the high court to authorize his district to hear cases in Palm Beach County, and he enlisted the local public defender’s office to help his staff connect the Keys inmates with their families on the outside. It wasn’t necessary; jail authorities moved the inmates back shortly after everything was ready. But the cross-circuit cooperation broke new ground in which lawyers committed to helping one another for the clients and their families. “That’s why we all tried to get together,” Lockwood says.

Man smiling
James McDonald. Photo by Todd Spoth.

LEGAL AID IN ACTION

Texas resident James McDonald has been eligible for disability benefits since 1995—for PTSD and depression stemming from Navy service in the Middle East and Somalia—but he never made the claim. He didn’t want to think of himself as disabled. But his emotional equilibrium suffered after Hurricane Harvey when his landlords started demanding that his family vacate their house in the Houston suburb of Baytown.

There was little money to make the move; McDonald’s hours at his catering job had dropped to nearly zero following the storm, and his girlfriend hadn’t worked at all for a few weeks. Nevertheless, the landlords threatened to throw their things into the street if they didn’t leave within five days. Then they started a campaign of harassment, banging on the doors and sending a barrage of text messages. McDonald’s daughter, a senior in high school, was too anxious to sleep. And McDonald, who was driving for Uber at night to make ends meet, was finding the situation difficult himself.

McDonald got connected to the veterans unit at Lone Star Legal Aid. Attorney Justin Wilson got McDonald a temporary restraining order preventing the eviction and then brought him downstairs to Combined Arms, a Houston veterans’ organization that had donated office space to Lone Star. Combined Arms connected McDonald to federal disability benefits and treatment, then put him in touch with Main Street Ministries. The Christian nonprofit not only found him a new place to live but also funded the move.

He was grateful and humbled. “I’ve never accepted help in anything,” McDonald says. “And suddenly I put it out there, and not only do I find help, but it’s like they’re just falling over themselves to try to help me even more.”

The judge who granted the restraining order suggested that the landlords wanted to make a FEMA claim, based on the misrepresentation that they lived in the house themselves. According to Brown of Lone Star’s disaster response unit, this kind of fraud is not uncommon after a disaster. In other cases, she says, landlords might use the damage as an excuse to evict low-paying tenants to make room for market-rate renters or to sell the building.

For legal aid agencies, which confront needs that far outstrip their resources, there’s no such thing as a slow day. But after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, their clients’ needs were too immediate to ignore. At first, disaster victims need help with the basics of life—securing benefits so they can eat and dealing with destroyed homes or landlord-tenant problems. Poverty exacerbates it all.

“When you’re poor, everything’s harder,” says Brown. “They’re going to recover slower and worse.”

Legal aid agencies haven’t been handling these problems alone. In Houston, another major source of legal services to low-income communities in the Houston Volunteer Lawyer program, a project of the Houston Bar Association that connects private attorneys to pro bono opportunities. After the hurricane, the program kicked into high gear to help out, starting with staffing legal services tables in hurricane shelters, along with Lone Star.

“We had over 500 attorneys sign up in the first two or three weeks,” says Michael Hofrichter, director of operations and compliance at Houston Volunteer Lawyers. “To put that in perspective, we typically have somewhere between 1,000 to 1,300 attorneys doing work for us over the course of a year.”

Storefront after hurricane
Photo by Todd Spoth.

Volunteers across Texas—and Florida—also showed up online and via telephone. The Disaster Legal Services program, a project of the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division, teamed up with the state bars of Florida and Texas to recruit lawyers to staff a hotline offering legal advice to hurricane victims. In all, the DLS says 932 volunteers had participated by January (and more are welcome). Both state bars also recruited their attorneys to offer online legal advice through Free Legal Answers, a project of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service that’s partially sponsored by the sections on Litigation and Business Law.

Tracy Figueroa, team manager for disaster assistance at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, says a major source of questions is landlord-tenant problems, which tend to persist months after the storm. In the fall, her agency—which serves 68 counties along the Gulf Coast, Rio Grande Valley, and Central Texas—was handling lots of those, as well as foreclosures, clearing real estate titles, problems with contractors hired to fix the damage and appealing wrongful FEMA denials.

Brown says Lone Star client Herman Smallwood had a typical FEMA appeal. He and his two sisters inherited a house from their mother years ago; he lives there and pays the property taxes, but his name wasn’t on the title when the hurricane hit. On that basis, his application for FEMA benefits was denied. As a result, Smallwood—who’s lived on disability payments since 2012—was living in a house that actually broke in places when flooding knocked it off the blocks that had elevated it. The drywall was collapsing. “The house just looked like a broken-down old horse—a brokeback horse,” he says.

Hurricane damage
Photo by Todd Spoth.

Brown says the denial was a clear violation of FEMA’s own regulations, which say an “owner” can be a person who lives in a property rent-free and is responsible for its upkeep. She’s filed scores of appeals on behalf of people in that situation, and she says they’re always successful. She’s expecting Smallwood’s appeal to be approved, but she worries about how many others there might be like him who didn’t get help.

For people in Figueroa’s service area, which includes some hard-hit communities between Corpus Christi and Houston, these problems were compounded by a housing shortage that predated the storm. Harvey worsened that by making a huge percentage of the area’s homes uninhabitable. As a result, even people who had FEMA vouchers were still living in shelters weeks after the storm, or they’d left the state to live with relatives. The situation was so bad that the state of Texas began installing mobile homes in October.

“I’m concerned about what’s going to happen to our community in general over the years,” Figueroa says. “I don’t know if they’re going to repopulate it the way that it was before because there’s not a place for them to go.”

Eventually, Figueroa says, the legal problems created by the hurricane will move into long-term problems: bankruptcies, foreclosures, and lawsuits over FEMA policies. One problem for her low-income clients is when FEMA grants them money, then later comes back claiming the money was improperly paid and tries to claw it back. Recipients have 30 days to pay before penalties and interest start piling up—which is not much time for people of limited means. The litigation spawned by that or other bad FEMA policies can last years, she says; a lawsuit over 2008’s Hurricane Dolly, for example, was settled in 2017.

“Long-term, it goes on for years,” says Figueroa. “These are not easy problems to solve.”

TWO HANDS: PRIVATE PRACTICE

Business litigator Charles Jimerson was up until midnight on Sept. 10—working on client matters rather than worrying about the potential impact of Hurricane Irma where he lives. In Jacksonville, 400 miles north of Irma’s U.S. landfall, there didn’t seem much to worry about. As a seventh-generation Floridian, Jimerson lived through plenty of hurricanes that fizzled.

When he awoke that Monday, the water in his living room was up to his ankles and rising. Irma unexpectedly pushed water levels in the nearby St. Johns River up 4 to 6 feet, causing Jacksonville’s worst flood in a century.

There was no time for Jimerson to save anything but his children—ages 5 and 6—and his two dogs. After carrying them to higher ground at a neighbor’s, Jimerson spent the rest of the day canoeing the neighborhood, trying to rescue people. His house would ultimately have to be bulldozed.

Jimerson & Cobb, the law firm he founded and manages, has fared slightly better. Though the firm’s office on the 14th floor of Jacksonville’s notable Wells Fargo Center was itself fine, 4 million gallons of muddy river water had wiped out electricity and telecommunications. Staff members had to go in and pull out essential files and a server—vital for the remote work they were now doing—without elevators, lights or air conditioning and against the wishes of building management.

It was, Jimerson says, a bonding experience for his team. But even more touching for him was the response when he sent out a plea to most of his business and personal contacts, looking for a place to put his 26 employees, as well as a place to live. He got about 350 responses within 36 hours.

Hurricane damage
Photo by Todd Spoth.

“There’s a lot of really tough lawyers in this town, and high-character, high-integrity folks who had to deal with some adversity of their own,” he says. “But those people have two hands. And they’re going to help themselves and their family with the one hand, and they’re going to help everybody else in the community with the other hand.”

That’s a theme running through the private bar’s response to the hurricanes. When calls went out for help, hundreds of attorneys answered, offering a hand up to their colleagues as well as members of the public.

In Houston, one person who put out that call was tax partner Keri Brown of Baker Botts (no relation to Saundra Brown). The pro bono partner in her office, she was already helping Baker Botts’ management put together resources, both financial and legal, to help the firm’s own employees who were affected by Hurricane Harvey.

But a few days into the storm, Brown found herself wanting to do more. She was on the verge of volunteering to sort clothes in a shelter at 3 a.m. when she learned that Lone Star’s office had caught fire. She got loaner laptops from Baker Botts for the legal aid attorneys and organized law firms around the city to take turns photocopying the agency’s flyers. She also put out a call for volunteers via email and a Facebook group for Texas lawyers. (See “Social Media Unites Lawyers to Help Those in Need,” page 44.)

“Within an hour, I was turning people away,” says Brown, who’s chaired committees of the ABA’s Real Property, Trust & Estate Law Section. Brown scheduled shifts by hand for two days until she was able to turn that task over to the Houston Volunteer Lawyers.

Interest continued to be overwhelming when Brown and partner Bill Kroger decided to host a free legal advice hotline via the Houston Bar Association.

In addition to their own lawyers, they got clients’ in-house attorneys and even staff members who wanted to help. The next day, Baker Botts hosted a CLE program on how to help hurricane victims; more than 700 people showed up or watched via the web. Even a lawyer who was gutting his own house at night would work long days on hurricane matters, she says.
Work wasn’t much of a refuge for those whose offices flooded. For personal injury firm Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz, the Harvey flooding was the third flood in three years and the fifth since 2000. The problem is their location; the office is directly across Commerce Avenue from Buffalo Bayou.

In 2017, the flooding was exacerbated by wind damage to the roof that let rain into the second and third floors.

The firm might have moved on to a different building, but partner Randy Sorrels says the firm’s lawyers are proud of the historic, lavishly restored office, which is showcased at an annual holiday party. Instead of moving, they plan to turn the first floor into parking spaces. To make room on the two upper floors, the firm will enclose the balcony and get rid of rarely used features like a built-in bar.

After the storm, Sorrels says, his firm received dozens of offers from colleagues for office space, equipment and more. The firm accepted some of those offers, but by October, almost everyone was back, squeezed into hallways and one-person offices. The holiday party was canceled for 2017, Sorrels says—but 2018’s will be on schedule.

“I was president of the Houston bar when hurricanes Katrina and Rita came in, so I kind of led the charge on assisting others,” he says. “This time, we’re on the receiving end … and it’s really heartwarming.”