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From the Keys to Jacksonville, Florida lawyers in the hurricane

Senior Editor Regular News

From the Keys to Jacksonville, Florida lawyers in the hurricane

Senior Editor and

Rawan Bitar

Associate Editor

From landfall in Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 with storm surges of 10-to-14 feet, to a second landfall on Marco Island as a Category 3, onward to nearby Naples with peak winds gusting at 142 mph and rain dumping 11.46 inches, Hurricane Irma ravaged parts of Florida, causing 42 deaths and rising. Just about everywhere in the Florida peninsula was affected, as 7 million residents evacuated and 2.23 million Florida customers were without power. The News reached out to Florida Bar members impacted by Irma, from Key West to Jacksonville, where the downtown area flooded as levels near the St. Johns River broke previous highs from 1864.

Here are their stories:

The Keys

In the aftermath of Irma, Cynthia Hall will never forget seeing the weird sight of a pink limo stretched sideways across U.S. 1 and checking on houses in Ramrod Key, where “the place looked like a war zone.”

Ramrod Key Before Irma had a name, Hall, an assistant county attorney in Monroe County, asked her boss if she could ride out the next named hurricane to hit the Keys, with the Emergency Management Center.

She wanted to experience her first hurricane and learn from it.

“I was fresh and naïve and stupid,” Hall said with a laugh, having moved to the Keys from Los Angeles a decade ago, but never knowing the power of a direct hurricane hit.

When she went to check on the house of a fellow attorney on Ramrod Key, at Mile Marker 27, “It literally looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. Houses had roofs and backs sheared off, and you could see furniture and appliances, with side walls gone.”

Her colleague’s house, relatively new construction, appeared to be in good shape, with a leaning tree. The worst damage she saw was from Big Pine Key south to Sugarloaf Key.

A search-and-rescue team of 480 from all over the country conducted door-to-door searches in Monroe County, and reported that about 10,000 out of 40,000 structures had been destroyed, including significant damage to the houses of the Monroe County clerk of court, the general counsel for the sheriff, and the Key West city attorney.

Hall’s own house, up on stilts, on the bayside of Sugarloaf Key, did OK.

But Hall didn’t go back to her place after Irma hit. She had work to do at the EOC in Marathon, where she was assigned to help in the planning unit and situation unit, where they collect information “to make sure everybody knows what is going on.”

The building they are housed in Marathon has no power, no water, no sewer, but a generator keeps one room air-conditioned. They brought in a port-a-potty. A Courtyard Mariott and a Hyatt gave them keys to hotel rooms, so even in the dark and heat, at least Hall has a bed to sleep on.

“This is my first hurricane. I stayed behind only because I knew I would be one tiny cog in this wheel I knew nothing about: emergency management. I got to be a pair of hands and a pair of legs. You do whatever it is that needs to be done,” Hall told the News
on September 18.

Firefighters left a strawman behind after clearing a side road on Summerland Key Well before Irma hit, at the urging of her boss, she took online classes on emergency management. But nothing could prepare her for the real-time experience of Irma that made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in Cudjoe Key on Sunday, September 10.

Within 24 hours of Irma’s wobble toward the Keys, Hall said they moved 60 EOC employees in Marathon further north to the Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo, where they hunkered down in concrete buildings where the luxury resort staff lived and rode out the storm with flashlights.

“It was an amazing bonding experience. If anybody was terrified, all they had to do was lean on the person beside them, physically or emotionally,” Hall said.

At 6 a.m. on Monday, after Irma made landfall, they drove back to Marathon in a caravan, with blue lights flashing.

It quickly became apparent that the three priorities were clearing the roads and getting the hospital ER and airport up and running, so linemen could be treated if hurt and supplies could reach the Keys.

“The military came in and took control of the Marathon airport that had a foot of water,” Hall said. “I saw the National Guard, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard, even postal inspectors and ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), and DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration).”

“The bottom line is the people down here are going to be hurting for a long time. Quite frankly, if one person hurts, we all hurt. The people hurting are in many cases the ones with smaller houses, the working class. These are the people we count on to teach our children, sell us our groceries, fight our fires, keep us safe,” Hall said.

“It’s going to be tough, but down here we are tough. When you live on an archipelago, you are acutely aware that you have Mother Nature 5 feet on either side of you.

“When I got the ability to text, I told people in my office: ‘When you come back, be prepared to be self-sufficient for a month. Bring gasoline. Bring water. We are on a boiled water advisory. Bring clean clothes; you don’t know when you can do laundry. Bring enough food for a month.’ There will be people coming back and finding out that they’re homeless.”

Now that she’s on the other side of the storm: “I am 1,000 percent glad I stayed. Obviously, I am very sorry for the destruction that occurred. But this has been an incredible learning experience. My No. 1 takeaway is how many people are willing to show up to help you,” Hall said.

“My director, Marty Senterfitt, wants to put together a team, so we will have our own little roving team to help someone else when disaster hits.

“We don’t have the ability to pay it forward right now, but at least we can pay it back when something like Irma happens again.”

Old Town

At Wayne LaRue Smith’s law office in Old Town Key West, a two-story wooden structure built in 1865 with charming wrap-around porches, they heard the mandatory evacuation order issued on Tuesday, September 4. Category 4 Irma was heading their way.

“We just right then and there dropped what we were doing,” said Smith, a Bar Board of Governors member, who has lived in the Keys for 24 years and had evacuated for hurricanes in the past.

But this time it was different.

Judge Luis Garcia conducts first appearances after the storm in the mess hall of the jail in Marathon. Irma was billed as one of the biggest Cat. 5 storms in history before it approached the Keys.

And Smith, along with an associate and a legal assistant, joined an estimated 70,000 out of 77,000 residents of the Keys in heading north.

“I had one day to get the shutters up on my office, and I’m part owner in another business in town. I got my boat secured and drove out of the Keys,” Smith said.

“ Frankly, one of the things that scares me most is we could get stuck while evacuating. The last place I want to be is on the road in a storm.”

After midnight, he drove to Boca Raton, and then headed to family just outside Birmingham, Alabama — an arduous trek that took two days.

“There were long stretches of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and gas was getting more and more scarce. We would get off the highway and have to go to five or six stations to find gas, and there were pretty long lines.”

Despite the stress and heat, Smith was surprised that most folks he encountered during the evacuation were “pretty upbeat and courteous.”

But he worried about a legal assistant, who he had not heard from eight days later, when he talked to the News.

“I do not know her status, and I am quite concerned. There is no power, water, sewer, or cell service in the Lower Keys.

“Because my office runs on a server in the office, and not on a cloud server, we are out of business until further notice. I am able to access my email, but I cannot access any of my files,” he wrote in an email.

From Alabama, he traveled to New York, a refugee from Irma waiting at least a week before he can return home.

Part of his disaster was frustration with “one of the major companies that has long served the legal community” that was supposed to have his law office server moved to a cloud-based server months ago.

“It has been an unmitigated disaster working with this company,” Smith said, adding he is tempted to name names, but he has stopped paying the company and the company is threatening to sue. Thankfully, he has his email system through Microsoft 365 cloud service.

“I have access to email and all client contact data on my iPad and laptop. Most of my clients are local, and they are busy just managing their survival and wherever they have evacuated to. The court system is shut down except for first appearances.

“It’s so darn stressful. At this point, my two-lawyer law firm will lose a month of productivity,” Smith said, having just finished staying on the phone to make sure he got his people paid with direct deposit.

“I have an assistant who has been with me for 13 years holed up in a hotel with two kids in Orlando. She needs to know she can feed them.”

His 19-year-old son stayed behind in Key West to help and reports Old Town was “surprisingly unscathed,” including Smith’s well-built historic law office.

While he waited for word that Key West residents are allowed back in, Smith said, “All you can do is return to some of those basic premises of those things we can’t control, we have to let go, and focus on the things we can do something about.”

Marco Island

Give Florida lawyer Monica LuAnn Pierce a call, and part of her voice-mail message has Jimmy Buffett singing “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere.”

“Pour me somethin’ tall an’ strong

Make it a ‘Hurricane’ before I go insane

It’s only half-past 12 but I don’t care

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”

Even though Irma had raked over the Keys and was headed her way as a Category 3 hurricane, destined to make landfall in Marco Island south of Naples, Pierce decided to stay put in her condo on Smokehouse Bay.

“We live in a sturdy concrete condo on the second floor. We felt like as long as we didn’t get a 12-foot storm surge, we expected to be safe,” Pierce said.

With friends on the third and fourth floors of the condo also deciding to stay, she knew she and her husband and two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels could “vertically evacuate” if they had to.

The howling winds of 130-140 mph were “pretty scary,” she admits, but she was relieved the water never surged over the seawall.

When the eye passed directly over, Pierce grabbed the opportunity of temporary calm to take her dogs outside to do their business.

While an estimated 10,000 out of 17,000 residents evacuated the island, Pierce said they decided to stay put because they didn’t want to get stuck on the highway with a gas shortage.

For insurance-coverage purposes, they had to haul their 40-foot boat, named Desert Dream, to the Hamilton Harbor Boat Club in Naples for safe storage.

On September 14, in Irma’s aftermath, they were in their hot condo without power, but in good spirits, with plenty of water and cheese and crackers to see them through.
If only they had their boat, Pierce said, they could be relaxing in air-conditioned comfort.


John P. Cardillo waited an hour and a half to get gas in Naples, only to be next in line just as the pump ran dry.

“I looked like Earl Weaver stomping my foot down,” Cardillo said, referring to the late manager of the Boston Orioles, who was ejected from games more than 90 times for throwing temper tantrums that sometimes included kicking dirt on umpires.

A tree down at Woodward, Pires & Lombardo in Naples That was Thursday, September 14, and Naples still had no power, and schools were shut down indefinitely with sewer-backup issues. Even though he said downtown Naples did not take a hit, Cardillo, who writes a food column called The Traveling Fork, said: “There’s not a restaurant open to this day, except for pizza joints powered by generators.”

Cardillo’s home in Pine Ridge, north of downtown and on the east side of Tamiami Trail, was the fortress where he and his wife and dog, and his lawyer son, John T. Cardillo, and his wife, two kids, and four dogs, hunkered down to ride out Irma.

Except for a few blown-off roof tiles, a lot of downed big trees, an unmoored 70-foot dock on his lake, and his screened-in pool cage taken out by an 80-foot tree, they fared pretty well, he said.

“That wind and rain were so severe, I could not see 20 feet through where the wall was. All you could see was the wind and the force of the rain,” Cardillo said of 140-mph gusts.

He couldn’t get into his bank account, there’s no phone service at home or in his office, and he can barely see to read anything unless he takes it close to the window.

“Everything is so dependent on computers. We can’t do anything,” Cardillo said. “And the courts are closed. I’m grateful. Nobody was hurt. My family was fine. Very few people in Naples were hurt. Most of the property damage was trees,” he said.

Cardillo said he has been heartened by the many emails and calls he has received from colleagues checking on his safety.

“I’m exhausted and my son is exhausted. Every day, a neighbor says, ‘I’m going to get gas for my generator. Can we take a canister for you?’ I saw some tremendous cooperation among neighbors. And I couldn’t get over how polite people are on the road,” Cardillo said, of most drivers who remember to treat intersections without traffic lights as four-way stops.

Thanks to a felled mango tree that broke a pipe, there’s no water.

“I got a guy in yesterday to jerry-rig a temporary hookup so we can take a shower.”

‘Clients First’

Well before Irma was a distant swirl off the African coast, Laird Lile, a Board of Governors member in Naples, had plans to be in Maine on September 7 and 8, and in Ohio on September 9 and 10.

Then Irma’s projected path put Naples smack dab in the cone of danger.

“I wrestled with changing those plans to stay in Naples, but ultimately decided that I should not miss the fundraising event with Barbara and George H.W. Bush at Kennebunkport and seeing my children in Ohio,” Lile said.

But his return trip to Florida changed wildly from his original agenda.

On Sunday morning, September 10, Lile was able to catch the last flight from Atlanta, but he could only get as far south as Tallahassee. He drove a rental car through North Florida, with sporadic wind and rain. He stocked up on supplies in rural Mayo, got on I-75 north of Gainesville and spent the night in Lakeland, while Irma ravaged Naples.

“Early on Monday, the only thing on my mind was getting back to Naples to check on my office and my home. All the while, driving south, my phone was beeping with messages from concerned colleagues.”

After fording overflowing rivers south of Arcadia, Lile arrived in Naples around 11 a.m. Monday, and was relieved to find his office and house still standing. One sad side note: Lile had a beautiful pond with six koi that he gave nicknames and talked to every day. Because the power was out and the air pump was off, the koi didn’t survive the storm.

“That is when the work began,” Lile said. “The roads were littered with branches and evidence of standing water. A downed tree blocked the street to my office.”

And the heat was nearly unbearable.

Borrowing electricity from his landlord’s generator, he got his email server running, and the emails flowed with the use of an alternate internet connection.

A solo practitioner, Lile reviewed his calendar and pending client matters. He found one with an approaching deadline that could not be moved by consent of opposing counsel, the court, or the IRS.

“There are some types of deadlines created by terms of documents that I was dealing with. The trust, by its terms, was going to be terminated by Sunday. With that in mind, I am lying in my hot and humid bed on Wednesday evening wondering, ‘How can I deal with this?’”

Lile sent a draft to a lawyer in Montana, but he couldn’t access what he had sent her, so he asked her to send it back. He reached out to a friend in Ohio who could edit and send it back in PDF form.

“It was only a matter of finding a printer and FedEx service,” Lile said. “Knowing that many colleagues in Tampa were available to assist, I imposed upon Deb Boje and her staff at Gunster’s Tampa office.”

Lile’s client received the package by 8 a.m. Friday and had it signed and sent back to Lile before the intractable deadline.

“Clients first. We hold these professional responsibilities very seriously and don’t want to let our clients down,” Lile said.

While he didn’t have a formal hurricane plan (like 61 percent of Florida lawyers, according to a 2016 Bar Economic and Law Office Management Survey), Lile said his dedicated employees put the steps in place. He was reminded of the wisdom of not waiting until the last minute, glad he had a draft of the document that was mostly done. He sees the importance of having a to-do list available, so even if you can’t return after the storm, at least employees will know what to do.

He has a backup of records in the cloud, as well as in a third secure location in Naples.
“Even if the building had been destroyed, we could be back in three days,” Lile said. “Then I began the waiting game. Thinking of clients and texting and calling them to determine how they fared. And waiting. Waiting for electricity and the internet to be re-established.”

He’s checked on his staff, making sure funds were available for missed payroll, “always knowing that our people are the only truly irreplaceable part of my practice.”

He knows he’s lucky that he’s doing his waiting in an air-conditioned hotel in Tampa, rather than in the sweltering heat of powerless Naples.


Even inland in Orlando, the four-lawyer firm at Southern Trial Counsel was impacted.

To protect equipment, the server was shut down for five days, preventing attorneys and paralegals from working remotely or communicating with clients.

“Consequently, our bottom line will take a noticeable hit for the lost time this month,” said Jennifer Smith Thomas.

“However, in the face of such a significant natural disaster, the safety of our people and their families are our highest priority. We are happy to report that all our team members suffered only minor property damage at their homes. Moreover, challenges such as this monster storm reaffirm why we enjoy practicing in a small firm: Every team member pitches in to help with those odd jobs that are in no job description,” such as sandbagging the office and moving fragile art to safety.

“Our thoughts are with the members of our community and legal profession, who suffered loss as a result of Irma. And we vow to help rebuild. Together, we will.”


Jacksonville’s iconic signature building, the 37-foor Wells Fargo Center, is wrapped in crime-scene tape, and the lawyers who work in various firms there are locked out.

On Monday, September 11, Irma brought 90-mph wind gusts, storm surges of 3 to 5 feet, and flood levels near the St. Johns River in the city broke the previous highs from 1864.

“An historic storm surge came up the river, just unbelievable! There’s a whole section of downtown that flooded,” said Board of Governors member Michael Tanner, whose law office, Tanner Bishop, is in the Wells Fargo Center at the aptly named address: 225 Water Street that also houses other law firms, including Foley & Lardner; and Pajcic & Pajcic.

Jacksonville lawyer Charles Jimerson used a canoe to get to higher ground “Water got in the basement of our building, where all the electrical and mechanical systems are,” Tanner said. “Our building got a double-whammy,” he said, because power was knocked out in the entire downtown grid.

The basement that flooded contains the mechanics for the air conditioning, 15 elevators, and telecommunications.

“Our building is locked down,” Tanner said on Wednesday, September 13. “I can’t get into the office and our phones are down. We are locked out. They put crime scene tape around the building.”

The good news for Tanner’s firm: “Fortunately, we did have a disaster plan in place. We never hoped we would need it. We used to have our server on site, which would have been horrible. We would lose information and be out of touch with our clients.

“We decided to go on the cloud two and a half years ago. So glad we did. All our lawyers are able to work remotely. I am on our firm’s website, just as if I were sitting at my desk. I can get to all of my client work and documents.”

Even though he evacuated his Jacksonville apartment to his place in rural Grady County, Georgia, the law firm is humming along.

“We have conference calls with the entire staff every morning at 9 a.m. We are doing our business. As I think about it, we are all blessed it wasn’t worse. I have to tell you, I am a believer in the cloud and remote capability, and this is a perfect example of when that is an advantage,” Tanner said. “The lesson for all lawyers is better have a disaster plan.”

His Canoe Came in Handy

When a man has to carry his dogs on his back to rescue them from flooding, you know the water must be deep.

That’s what Charles Jimerson did Monday morning in Jacksonville after Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida the day before.

He woke up to waves crashing against his house near the St. John’s River, resulting in ankle-deep water indoors.

“Within an hour, water was knee-deep in my house,” Jimerson said.

“I stepped outside of my house into chest-deep water.”

Jimerson carried his 5- and 6-year-old children on his back to the second floor of a neighbor’s house before he retrieved his two dogs. From a distance, he watched the brackish river waters rush into his single-story house.

“Our house is probably a complete and total loss. I think it might be bulldozed,” he said. “I would say 90 percent of our personal belongings are a loss.”

His canoe came in handy for a ride around the neighborhood. He rescued families from their houses, and helped people reach dry ground. He canoed his own family to higher ground until a friend could drive them away to a safe place. Jimerson was a welcome sight paddling the canoe to greet neighbors stranded in their homes.

The office of Jimerson & Cobb, where Jimerson is managing partner, is now displaced for three to four months due to prolonged power outages in Jacksonville’s flooded Wells Fargo Center. Some of the offices’ lawyers have been able to work remotely, but the staff hasn’t been able to engage off-site.

Jimerson’s family is now crammed into a two-bedroom condo with other adults for now, as he tries to figure out where his family is going to live, and where his law firm is going to operate from, he said.

“My car died yesterday, too, which was a real triple whammy,” he added.

In spite of all this, Jimerson would rather look at the bright side.

“What matters most is the love of those around you. May our grateful hearts be a magnet for future miracles and blessings.”

Sloshing Through the Kitchen

A dead fish was on the kitchen floor when flood waters receded from Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division President-elect Christian George’s home near the St. John’s River.

The daughter of YLD board member Web Melton needed rain boots to make her way through the home of YLD President-elect Christian George on the St. John’s River in Jacksonville The night Hurricane Irma slammed the opposite side of the state, George had a feeling something was wrong and couldn’t sleep. At 5 a.m., he went downstairs to look out a window.

“I was kind of squinting. I thought, ‘Oh God, is the water that close?’” George said, thinking he would soon lose his two-story home. “I put on my glasses and sure enough it was.”

Tampa evacuees Web Melton (a YLD board member) and lawyer wife, Kristin, were sleeping in a bedroom on the lower floor of the house, joined by their 4-year-old and 11-month-old girls, a Yorkie-poo, and a cat.

Everyone sought refuge upstairs, and by noon, George learned Jacksonville’s mayor announced there would be an additional 4 to 6 feet of storm surge, and there was already 4 feet in George’s house.

“I didn’t want to be stuck,” George said. “There was no power. My phone was on and off working, and I had friends calling me telling us we needed to get out, but no one could get to us.”

George walked into the middle of the street, knee deep in water, to find an exit. Seven houses away on higher ground, a friend was in a truck trying to get to George, who was yelling for rescue. Then, everything fell into place.

“I turned around and one of my buddies down the street was paddling in a canoe to check out the damage and check on us,” George said.

That canoer was Jimerson.

The small girls were loaded into the canoe with the pets. George’s wife, Whitney, walked in knee-deep water with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in a sling across her body.

The Georges lost their cars, which were parked in the flooded garage.

The Meltons’ Mazda SUV miraculously survived the flood, and although Melton scooped out buckets of water from its interior and dispersed cut-up diapers on the floor boards to soak up excess water, the family was able to travel safely back to Tampa.

“It was much faster than I thought it would be,” Melton said about the flash flood, which entered through the floorboards of his host’s house. While the adults were outside trying to stop the water, the water in the room where the youngsters were sleeping was rising from under the slabs.

“One was in a pack n’ play, which was 6 inches off the ground. I went to grab her up first,” Melton said. “By the time I had gotten back to get their stuff, the water had risen to where she was sleeping in the pack n’ play. She’s 11 months old, so she could have lifted herself up. But if that was her sleeping there six months ago, when she couldn’t sit up or roll over, and we slept through it, she could have been in serious trouble.”

Before they departed the flood zone, Melton’s 4-year-old took liberty to splash around in the George’s living room with her rain boots. For George, it’s now a waiting game until the floors are fanned dry and the insurance companies pull through.

“It is a pain because I’m used to fixing things. That’s what I do for a living, and right now, I can’t,” George said. “It’s completely out of my hands.”

Former Bar President Hank Coxe is lucky his home in Jacksonville’s Riverside-Avondale neighborhood was sitting just high enough it didn’t flood. But many of his neighbors were not so lucky, as lawns turned into lakes and water lapped against front doors. Docks were floating down the street. Coxe’s garage did flood when waters of the St. Johns and Ortega rivers and Big Fishweir Creek spilled over, and that’s where his wife, Mary, had to wade to get food from the freezer.

“I don’t think anybody expected this,” Coxe said, “The theory is right up to the storm, we got hit by a serious Nor’easter, and there was tremendous wind pushing the water.”

One bright moment amid the flooding and days of no power was a Key West friend he hadn’t seen in 20 years evacuated and showed up in Coxe’s office the Friday after the storm.

The friend told Coxe: “We don’t leave Key West for [Category] 1’s and 2’s. But 4’s and 5’s, we decided to get out. You did me a favor a long time ago. So here are 24 lobster tails.”

“We had neighbors over, eating lobster tails all weekend long,” Coxe said.

Coxe took photos of nearby parks and streets flooded with river water. While he could go to his undamaged firm, Bedell, Dittmar, DeVault, Pillans & Coxe, he made many trips back home with gas for his generator.

“There is a certain fascination with seeing Mother Nature’s unprecedented and instant surge of water. But it is horribly painful to see others lose their homes or businesses or both. We have photographs, but some have nightmares.”

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