YourABA June 2012 Masthead

Thriving after disaster: Tips from Katrina survivors

Speaking at a recent ABA CLE on disaster preparedness, Judge Karen Wells Roby recalled the difficulty of getting the courts back up and running after Hurricane Katrina, with limited means of communication as well as shelter-seeking judges scattered across the country. A judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Roby acknowledged that the disaster response plan in place could have helped, but too few people were familiar with it—including herself. "There were some judges who knew where to go," she said. "I was a judge who did not know where to go, and I ended up in Houston. "

One of Roby's big lessons from the 2005 disaster: "Communicate your plan downward. " She emphasized that organizations must educate all stakeholders on recovery plans—not just upper-level managers.

"Communicate your plan downward. " Roby emphasized that organizations must educate all stakeholders on recovery plans—not just upper-level managers.

Judge Madeleine Landrieu of the Orleans Parish's court of appeals, a co-panelist, also struggled in helping the courts recover. A civil trial judge at the time, she could not locate the person who had access to the courts' backup data because she lacked the person's contact information. Fortunately, she ran into a family member of someone who worked at the security center and was eventually able to locate what she needed.

Every employee in your office should have a list of persons to contact in a disaster situation, Landrieu advised, acknowledging the good luck in her situation. She noted that there should be multiple available copies of the contact list—in hard copy, backed up electronically and in the cloud. Further, in addition to names and email addresses, a contact list should include the name of each person's nearest relative who is likely to be aware of the contact person's whereabouts at any given time.

Landrieu said that having a strong leader was essential to the courts' successful recovery. She praised the work of Kitty Kimball, then associate chief justice, who was designated as the "justice in charge. "

Kimball stayed connected to Senate and House leaders as well as to the plaintiffs' and defense bars to help shepherd the courts' recovery, said Landrieu, emphasizing the importance of Kimball's accessibility.

"If your personal circumstances do not allow you to be ‘all hands and all feet on deck,' you need to designate someone else [as leader] and get out of the way," she advised.

On the topic of communication after the disaster, Landrieu recalled that getting messages out to lawyers and other stakeholders was particularly challenging. Not only was mobile technology far less advanced and prevalent than it is today, but the courts' websites were down because they were not hosted by an external provider.

"Your communication link either has to be redundant or outside [the workplace] altogether," Landrieu said of the lesson learned.

Accessible backups helped Roby get back to work quicker than most others. She said that because servers were replicated in Washington, D.C., it wasn't long before her BlackBerry was ringing with calls and emails from colleagues.

Other tips from Roby and Landrieu:

  • Consider laptops over desktop computers. Laptops allow work on the go, and in an emergency situation, data on laptops can be easily transported.
  • Consider using cloud technology. "You can easily pull your data down, and your life can resume fairly quickly," Roby said.
  • Paying staff can be a big concern during a serious business interruption. "Get staff on direct deposit. It's a disaster best practice," Landrieu said.

Landrieu closed the session by urging the audience to set a date for disaster planning, which is often put off to handle other pressing matters. Disaster preparation can be like plans to start Christmas shopping early—it never really gets done, she said. "You have got to put it on your calendar—or else it's not going to happen. "

"When the Levees Broke: Lessons Learned from Judicial and Governmental Response to Hurricane Katrina" was produced by the Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section Task Force on Disaster Preparedness and Response. The program took place at the 2011 Midyear Meeting in New Orleans and was recently made available for free to ABA members as an ABA CLE.

For more guidance on disaster preparation, access "Surviving a Disaster: A Lawyer's Guide to Disaster Planning," produced by the Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness.

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