One Solo’s Adventures with Katrina
One of the first emails I sent after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast was to a friend on staff at the ABA:
This is a nightmare! We assume everything is gone, and don’t know when or if we’ll ever be “home” again. At least we’re safe, but it’s hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel—no home, no work, nowhere to go. Please keep us in your prayers.
It was about 36 hours after the storm came ashore, and only a few hours since we heard that failed levees had submerged more than 80 percent of our city. My 81-year-old mother and I were in Natchez, Mississippi, with friends, and we had absolutely no information about most of our family and friends, and no idea about the condition of our property. It was more than two weeks later that I confirmed that my house had been inundated with three feet of water, and my office with up to 10 feet! My first chance to see what remained was a month after we had evacuated for what we had hoped would be a three day “vacation.”
Our little “vacation” became a week in Natchez, five weeks in Huntsville, Alabama, and seven months in a little apartment in Houston.
Friends asked whether I was able to work during this time, so I’ll try to paint a picture. I evacuated with my office safe containing original wills, powers of attorney, and the like. It was six weeks before I got my hands on client contact information, which was virtually useless, as neither phone lines nor mail service were operational. I immediately secured a new office phone number, but it was more than six months before my regular number was in service. Only about 10 percent of the letters sent to clients in January 2006 resulted in contact, and a few more tracked me down through my Web site or email. Even now, close to two years after the disaster, I haven’t located 25 to 30 percent of my pre-Katrina clients. Unfortunately, probate work is plentiful—although the population of New Orleans has diminished, the death rate, especially among the elderly and infirm, has grown.
Although my “real work” was slow to return, I found myself with several full-time jobs. The voluminous paperwork, innumerable phone calls, and endless frustration of dealing with insurance companies, mortgage companies, FEMA, the SBA, and countless other federal, state, and local entities was virtually impossible to negotiate. I often wondered how those with less resources, education, and support could possibly cope.
The support I received from friends across the country, including my longtime ABA network of colleagues and buddies, was (and is) invaluable. I continue to work from home, search for lost clients, and wish for a neighborhood grocery and drugstore. It’s impossible to convey the scope of the destruction and disruption. When will things be back to normal? Why is it taking so long? I’ve done my share of blaming governments and other entities, and the snail’s pace of bureaucracy has certainly played its part. Beyond that, the answer lies in the enormity of the disaster. Imagine if your home burned down—friends and family would take you in, of course! But what if their homes were gone too, along with schools, churches, fire stations, malls, and gas stations? What if your office was destroyed? Where do you find a new one? How about 100 miles away in another town? It’s not only finding the money to rebuild, but also competing with over 250,000 others to find a builder, a painter, a plumber, an electrician, a hundred pieces of Sheetrock, and some kitchen cabinets! Even if we were all millionaires, it would be impossible to rebuild this city in two years.
The progress is slow. The city of New Orleans and its people have an amazing spirit and we won’t give up the struggle. I ask you not to forget that the struggle continues, and to consider a visit to witness that spirit firsthand. I’m an optimist at heart. I look back at that first email and am thankful that it wasn’t all gone, I am in my home again, and the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer each day. Y’all can still keep the prayers coming, though!
Patti Garcia is a sole practitioner in New Orleans specializing in estate planning and probate, past president of the N.O. Bar Association, and an active member of the ABA. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.