Big Pine Rises Up: Pro bono lawyer helps Keys residents get back on their feet after Irma
Two days after Category 4 Hurricane Irma plowed the 10-square-mile sliver of land where he lived and operated his business, Conch Wastewater, Jeff Sharp drove through the night from Alabama on his way home to Big Pine Key.1
Unbeknownst to him, his house boat lay upside down in a mangrove.
“I lost everything,” Sharp said, recounting the casualties: one company truck, two pickups, a motorcycle, a WaveRunner, an office now filled with three feet of seawater, and a heavily damaged fifth-wheel trailer.
“I’m sleeping on a couch at my assistant’s house,” Sharp said, referring to the soggy remains of his fifth-wheel, where his assistant Christy Crooks had lived alone at a Big Pine Key RV park prior to the storm. “She basically all of a sudden had a roommate. We were airing it out with fans. I was spending $35 a day on gasoline for the generator. We were living out of ice chests.”
And then, less than two weeks after the storm and before some residents had even been able to return, came the park owner’s letter taped to the door of every trailer in the park: “Within the next week we will be removing damaged trailers and disassembling any utility hook ups. If you own the trailer and it is capable of being moved, please remove it as soon as you can.”
The park was closing. “We recommend you contact FEMA,” the letter said.
Meanwhile, about 30 miles to the southwest, Al Kelley, a Key West lawyer specializing in business, entertainment, and intellectual property, had finished helping with his family’s and neighbors’ cleanup efforts and had begun opening his doors to pro bono clients between 8 and 10 a.m. each day, before his office began to swelter. Using the hot spot on his cell phone to do research, he boned up on FEMA claims, Small Business Administration loans, federal disaster food assistance, and the like. It would be two weeks before he got his power back, and there wasn’t much he could do for his regular clients, so he figured he would spend his time volunteering.
Soon, Kelley found out about a pro bono clinic involving Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc., and Cuban American Bar Association (CABA) Pro Bono Legal Services that was being offered in one of the hardest hit areas: Big Pine Key.
A Ft. Myers native and nearly 30-year resident of Key West, Kelley had lived through Category 4 Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Category 3 Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which killed 25 people in Florida.2 B oth storms made a direct hit on the Keys. But the closest thing Kelley had ever seen to what he found on Big Pine Key was Homestead, a rural community at the tip of the Florida mainland that was all but wiped from the map by Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“The level of damage that we’ve seen this time, I’ve never seen here before,” Kelley said.
Conchs, a term applied to Keys natives like Kelley’s wife, are tough people, he said.
“They handle themselves. They don’t take government handouts if they don’t need to. They just take care of themselves and get on with their day. But this particular storm has had a different impact. We’re talking about houses that were destroyed, literally washed away,” he said.
But not all Keys residents respond to hurricanes the same way, Kelley said.
“Hurricanes bring out the best in people, and they bring out the worst in people,” he said. “If you are inclined to be a good person, the storm makes you a better person. If you’re inclined not to be a good person, it makes you a worse person. They magnify your traits. Landlord-tenant exemplified this concept. I talked to commercial landlords I represent who said, ‘I can’t charge my clients rent this month after what they’ve gone through.’ I had one landlord who just gave every one of his tenants $2,500 off their rent for the month to try to help them out. I talked to landlords who actually paid their clients, gave their clients’ money, to try to help them out instead of charging for rent. Just outstanding people.”
The RV park tenants did not have that kind of landlord, so they turned to Kelley for help.
“I drafted a letter to the park owner. I explained to the owner that there were certain laws that had to be followed. You can do what you want to do, but you at least have to give proper notices and go through the proper procedure,” Kelley said. “That case was eventually picked up by Legal Services of Greater Miami, and they worked out a situation that benefited everybody. Here’s 24 people who are being displaced. And they had no place to go.”
Before the storm, the rent of $450-$500 a month at the RV park was among the most affordable in the Keys, where according to the Miami Herald, the rent for a typical one-bedroom apartment was already 32 percent higher than anywhere else in Florida,3 a nd where the share of income-to-mortgage is nearly 38 percent on average.4
B eyond its worth in rental income, the RV park had value in ROGO (rate of growth ordinance) points, a system under Monroe County’s rate of growth ordinance whereby property owners can accumulate points toward a building permit. And because of that, Sharp and his fellow tenants had understood for years that their lots would eventually be exchanged for the owner’s right to develop vacation property in a more desirable Keys location, probably Key West. Already the number of occupied lots had been cut down from 130 to about 30,5 w ith the remaining tenants mostly business owners or long-time residents.
“We represented ROGO to the developer,” Sharp said, adding that under the rate of growth ordinance, “all of the trailer parks became donor organs to all the hotel developers.”
The residents knew they couldn’t stop the park from being closed, but they needed more time to figure out where they would go. And that’s what they got.
Kelley’s letter put a halt to the evictions, and Legal Services of Greater Miami then negotiated with the park’s owner on behalf of the tenants, one-by-one.
“They did that for us. Each person made an arrangement through Legal Services,” Sharp said. “Between September 20 and November 15, people had almost two months where they were able to figure out where they were going to go, what they were going to do, and all that was done because of Al’s letter and because we had Legal Services helping us.
“I can’t express enough how grateful I am for all the work that he did and that Legal Services did. The time that they bought us and the fact that they represented us made all the difference in the world — just to know there was somebody there helping us, that somebody cared about us, that somebody was there to represent us in something we didn’t understand.”
A member of Rotary International, Sharp said he’s usually the one helping others. And that’s what he was trying to do. After the storm, he had reports to file with the Department of Environmental Protection and repairs to make, so that wastewater plants could resume operation, Keys residents could start getting back to more normal lives, and tourism operations could reopen.
Unlike some of his fellow tenants, he had a general idea of his rights and felt as though he could have sorted out the issue with his landlord on his own if it weren’t for the stress of the devastation that was all around him.6 But he couldn’t think straight while being eaten alive by no-see-ums and spending part of each day hunting for ice and other supplies for basic survival.
“If you give me two months, I can freshen up on anything, and I can be who I need to be. I can make myself familiar with the law and whatever I need to know,” he said. “But you can’t do that when you’re looking at your house in shambles and you’re trying to figure out how many more gallons of gas do I have in the generator and how many more gas cans do I need. And on top of all that, I had a business to run. I had customers who needed this pump or they needed this electrical panel. I needed to worry about my customers Monday through Friday. It never ended because all of my facilities received severe damage.”
Kelley was glad to have been able to help Sharp and his neighbors and continues to do pro bono work through a variety of means, including responding to calls via the Florida Disaster Legal Services Hotline, a joint initiative of the American Bar Association, The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division, and FEMA.
“We’ve been given a gift as lawyers to be able to do things that other people don’t know about and can’t do, and part of our job is to give back,” Kelley said.
“Back when I first decided to go to law school, I had a wonderful friend, Patti Dobson. She passed away shortly after I left law school. But when she found out that I was going to law school, she said, ‘Al, you’re the type of person that if somebody comes to you and needs help and can’t pay, you’re still going to do the work.’ And I’ve always remembered that, and I’ve always tried to live up to Patti’s image of me. So, to me pro bono has been an important part of my practice.”
1 Big Pine Key is the largest of the lower Florida Keys.
2 2005 — Hurricane Wilma,
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2005, available at http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/weather/hurricane/sfl-2005-wilma-story.html.
3 D avid Ovalle, In the Keys, Workers Already Struggled to Find Affordable Housing. Then Irma Hit,
Miami Herald, Sept. 30, 2017, available at http://www.miamiherald.com/news/weather/hurricane/article176362971.html.
4 Esri, Is the American Dream Still Affordable? Housing Affordability and Growth: Draw or Drawback? available at https://arcgis-content.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=49952831812243bdaa0a169cda0bd126 .
5 A lan Gomez, Hurricane Irma Shuts the Door on Keys’ Most Affordable Housing — RVs and Trailer Parks, USA TODAY, Sept. 25, 2017, available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/09/25/hurricane-irma-shuts-door-keys-most-affordable-housing-rvs-and-trailer-parks/697097001/.
6 Andrew Krietz, How Fast Were Hurricane Irma’s Winds Across Florida? WWL-TV, Sept. 11, 2017, available at http://www.wwltv.com/weather/irma/how-fast-were-hurricane-irmas-winds-across-florida/473312435.
NANCY KINNALLY is CEO of Relatable Communications Group, a full-service marketing and public relations agency focused on legal, medical, start-up companies, institutions, and nonprofits. She previously directed communications for The Florida Bar Foundation and was the founding communications director of the Florida State University College of Medicine. She can be reached at [email protected]