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Hurricane Michael wreaks havoc and How Florida Bar members can help

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November 20, 2018

Hurricane Michael wreaks havoc
Florida lawyers and the court system rally in response

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor
and Rawan Bitar
Associate Editor

 

“Pray for the Panhandle.”

That’s how one lawyer put it after Hurricane Michael, which fell just short of a Category 5 maelstrom, carved its way through some of the most rural parts of the state, generally routing up the 14th Judicial Circuit.

Even several days after the storm, no water, no electricity, no internet, no cell service were the rule in many areas. And, obviously for many if not most Bar members, no operating law office.

Bay County CourthouseCommunications were so sketchy that when the Second Judicial Circuit sent nine satellite phones to Panama City to help out the 14th Circuit court system, Chief Judge Elijah Smiley reportedly let the Panama City police have three of them to bolster their beleaguered system.

“So many of the offices downtown have major damage. Many will be closed for an unknown amount of time,” said Panama City attorney Alicia Carother. “We have been informed that Panama City (and surrounding) residents need to prepare to be without power for up to two months. Many of us are trying to temporarily relocate to Panama City Beach (which is slated to have power back by October 15th) or Destin/Niceville so we can work remotely.

“Bay County is forever changed. It has been described by many as resembling a ‘war zone.’ Many people lost everything and are homeless. Pray for the Panhandle.”

She reported heavy wind damage to the Bay County Courthouse.

Blountstown attorney Barbara Throne said the Calhoun County Courthouse appeared to have fared well, but much of the rest of the city didn’t.

“In town, it looks like a bomb went off,” she said five days after Michael went through. “The worst part is not having any running water. Both the Blountstown and the Altha high schools, which are relatively new, suffered serious, serious damage. They’re talking about not having the kids go back to school until December.”

For Throne, the worst part of the storm was its duration. 

FSU law school“It went on and on and on. We had torrential rain at about 6 in the morning and the winds really picked up by 8:30 a.m. and by 7 p.m., it was still too strong to go outside, she said. “I’ve been through Andrew [the 1992 storm that flattened southern Miami-Dade County] and it was a lot shorter and a lot faster.”

Throne got through the storm hiding “in a closet under the stairwell with my two kids and my two dogs and my two cats. . . . The [historic] house did pretty good because it has a metal roof. The yard is decimated.”

She estimated 145 trees, some more than 100 years old, were toppled on her four-acre property. It took two days of debris removal before she and her children could get out of the house. Even after five days, there was still, “no electricity, no water, no internet.”

Santiago Ascanopé, a Marianna lawyer, hid in a windowless bathroom with his two coonhounds when Hurricane Michael’s forceful 155 mph winds threatened to destroy his manufactured home. He saw trees fly past his house — not just spindly pine trees — but massive 200-year-old hardwoods. 

Everyone Has a Hurricane Story
“I used to practice in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, and everyone has a hurricane story. Now, I finally have mine,” joked the 34-year-old lawyer, who moved to the area last year to escape highly competitive South Florida. 

Florida Bar HQ“My brother, who is also a lawyer, was texting me saying, ‘you’re in the eye of the storm, and the next hour is going to be horrific.’ And I was thinking, if the next hour is worse than the previous hour, I’m not going to have a roof, I’m not going to have a house.”

By the time Jackson County residents in mobile homes or flood-prone areas were issued mandatory evacuation orders, it was too late for Ascanopé to leave. He said the community was blindsided by the storm. 

“At the very last minute, when it was unsafe to be on the roads, they told us we had to evacuate,” he explained. “You couldn’t evacuate at that point unless you were on a suicide mission.”

A tree landed on his shed, but Ascanopé said it was a “miracle” his home only sustained roof damage. A few gracious neighbors showed up to clear debris while he was confined to his property. 

“I literally had to crawl under so much rubbish, under so many fallen trees,” he said. “I didn’t have access out of the driveway.” 

He said collapsed trees and downed power lines and poles blocked the major roadways. It took two days to reach downtown Marianna while rumors swirled there was no town left. He said the spirit of Marianna is a “champion.” But he added the town has been decimated, and “we urgently need help.”

“I’m young and agile. I think of people in wheelchairs with canes in the same situation. I had to crawl underneath branches. That’s something I can do. I think the death toll, which is three in Jackson County, is going to climb. Because I’m telling you right now, there are people who are trapped in their houses, trapped in their driveways, trapped by the roads.” 

Unable to serve clients for the time being, the young lawyer is focused on survival basics: getting his portable generator hooked up so he can pump water and restore lighting; making sure enough trees are cleared to allow electric company technicians to reach him; and communicating without internet access and reliable cellular service. Meanwhile, buzzing chainsaws provide the only soundtrack at Asconopé’s house.

“The dogs are OK. I’m OK. That’s what’s most important,” he said.

Courthouses
The 14th Circuit, which stretches from Panama City and Port St. Joe through Marianna was the hardest hit by Michael. Court officials were still assessing damages and trying to establish communications as this News went to press.

Supreme Court Spokesperson Craig Waters said as of October 15, assessments had been complete except in Calhoun and Gulf counties. 

Blountstown home“Holmes and Washington courthouses are without power but most likely will be unable to open [soon] due to widespread infrastructure damage in the area and the difficulty of transportation. There is wind and water damage in Bay County’s courthouse, administration building, and juvenile courthouse. Jackson County has broken windows and resulting water damage,” Waters said.

Second Circuit Chief Judge Jonathan Sjostrum said Michael damaged courthouses in Franklin, Liberty, and Gadsden counties on the west side of the circuit. As of October 15, teams were still assessing the facilities, although Sjostrom hoped to reopen courthouses in Gadsden and Franklin, which had some roof leaks, by October 17. Liberty County facilities were still being assessed and might take longer.

The remainder of the Second Circuit’s courts in Leon, Jefferson, and Wakulla counties reopened on the 15th.

“The big problem with Franklin was roads and having a route down there so lawyers and litigants can get around the county,” he said.

“We’re nothing but fortunate compared to the people in the 14th Circuit,” Sjostrom added.

He noted the circuit sent nine satellite phones to Judge Smiley and is ready to do more.

“As soon as we can go down there without being a burden, we can help them with payroll and administration and get some courts open,” Sjostrom said. “They can’t really do anything but first appearances.”

He praised Chief Justice Charles Canady and State Courts Administrator PK Jameson for marshalling court resources to help the hard-hit areas and orders closing courts and extending time for cases.

Bar Resources
Bar President Michelle Suskauer issued a statement publicizing Bar resources to help both lawyers and the public, and the Bar’s LegalFuel program posted on its website a variety of resources to help lawyers affected by the storm.

Marianna street“As lawyers, we have a strong sense of duty to help, and can be an incredibly valuable resource to those in need,” Suskauer said. “Although attorneys are strongly cautioned against engaging in the solicitation of hurricane victims (which is prohibited by Rule 4-7.18), the Florida Free Legal Answers program offers a relatively easy way to lend your expertise. It is easy to do, takes only a couple of minutes and can mean so much to those in need.

“In addition, you can also sign up to volunteer to answer the questions of disaster survivors on a pro bono basis through the Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division Disaster Relief Hotline 1-866-550-2929. This hotline will be activated after the storm for low-income citizens in need of storm-related legal aid, such as landlord/tenant disputes, housing problems, consumer protection matters, and home repair contracts.

“To be a volunteer, you simply have to complete the form and have a basic understanding of common problems experienced by disaster victims. Visit the YLD’s FEMA page for more information.

“Go to LegalFuel.com for information and resources on disaster planning and business continuity, including how to create effective plans and even a checklist for next steps after a disaster, such as the assessment process, communication protocol, and more. You will also find links to FEMA and other disaster recovery services,” Suskauer said.

For a full list of member benefits and other important hurricane information, go to The Florida Bar’s Hurricane Information page or the FloridaBar.org home page for the latest updates.

LegalFuel has collected disaster planning and recovery information for Bar members at one webpage, which also includes links to the ABA disaster response, preparedness, and recovery advice; a LexisNexis publication “Surviving Disasters: Questions and Considerations for Law Firms Preparing Business Continuity Plans”; an after disaster strikes checklist; as well as links to FEMA, DisasterAssistance.gov, and disaster recovery services provided by the Florida Small Business Development Council. Advisors can assist members by phone during regular business hours (866-730-2020), and the live chat feature at LegalFuel.com is active. In addition, members may email for assistance: [email protected].

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How Florida Bar members can help
Disaster Relief Hotline seeks volunteers

 

The Young Lawyers Division, working in conjunction with the ABA Young Lawyers Section, is calling for volunteers to staff The Florida Bar’s Disaster Relief Hotline in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.

Christian GeorgeYLD President Christian George said hundreds are sure to call the hotline seeking legal advice after the Category 4 storm made landfall in North Florida.

Volunteers provide basic legal services for low-income individuals in non-fee generating cases. The most pressing need is for volunteers to return calls. 

“Most need only simple advice,” George said. “All of us want to help.”

To sign up to volunteer to answer the questions of disaster survivors on a pro bono basis, visit https://yldbog.formstack.com/forms/2018_disaster_legal_services_volunteer and complete the form. The Disaster Assistance Manual for Legal Services Advocates explains what you need to know to assist victims. 

“At this vulnerable time in their lives, your guidance is needed to assist in navigating recovery options available through FEMA and other organizations,” George said. “It’s a small service with a huge impact.” 

George said many young lawyers shy away from pro bono work because it’s new or feels uncomfortable.

“But, once you have helped someone who truly appreciates you, your advice, and your willingness to care, you will be forever changed by the experience,” he said. “We became lawyers to help others, and this opportunity is when you are most needed.” 

All Florida Bar members eligible to practice may volunteer to provide basic civil legal services for people who cannot otherwise afford legal representation in non-fee generating cases. The Florida Good Samaritan Act and the Federal Volunteer Protection Act provide protection for the volunteers who offer assistance, George said.

Volunteers assist by returning calls placed to the YLD’s 1-800 hotline or at FEMA centers. The legal assistance provided will be to people who cannot otherwise afford representation and counts as pro bono hours for reporting purposes. The types of legal questions most frequently asked as related to hurricane disasters involve landlord/tenant and other housing problems, consumer protection matters, and home repair contracts. 

Additional information can be found on The Florida Bar YLD’s website. The Florida Bar is also promoting this volunteer opportunity on all of its social media platforms. 

“Please share those posts and encourage your friends and colleagues to volunteer,” George said.

Other ways for members to help is through Florida Free Legal Answers. Although attorneys are strongly cautioned against engaging in the solicitation of hurricane victims (which is prohibited by Rule 4-7.18), the Florida Free Legal Answersprogram offers a relatively easy way to lend your expertise. A new category has been created for Floridians impacted by Hurricane Michael to post their legal questions. Visit https://florida.freelegalanswers.org to sign up or log in to your account and subscribe to the “Hurricane Michael” category. By subscribing to the “Hurricane Michael” category you will receive an email alert once a question is posted. The Bar requested, and the ABA has approved, a temporary increase of the qualifying cap so that Floridians can access the site and post questions relating to Hurricane Michael.

Florida Pro Bono Matters is another way to assist Floridians via an interactive website funded by The Florida Bar Foundation — both in hurricane recovery and year-round. You can view descriptions of available pro bono opportunities and indicate an interest in any of them; you then will be contacted by the posting organization with more information.

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