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Vol. 37, No. 3

Superstorm Sandy pulls bar leaders together, gives disaster planning renewed focus

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Once Superstorm Sandy had come and gone, Marian Rice, president of the Nassau County (N.Y.) Bar Association, checked her basement and was surprised to find jellyfish in it—along with 4 feet of water and dirt.

Still, she counts herself lucky: Her house in a waterfront neighborhood on Long Island is up on pilings, and all of its mechanicals—such as the heating and cooling systems—are on the second floor. “Compared to most,” she says, “my life is not as difficult.”

As of the end of January, the Nassau bar had held 12 legal clinics in various hard-hit Long Island locations and had assisted more than 500 people, mainly with questions about how to file claims with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The demand isn’t going down, Rice notes, and the bar will continue to hold such clinics “at least through spring.”

Rice is pleased to have 80-some volunteer lawyers she can count on to provide this assistance—some of whom are still displaced from their own homes and sorting through their own legal and personal crises.

But not all of her legal community is yet fully accounted for, even months after the storm.

“We’re still measuring the impact on lawyers,” Rice says. “I’m very concerned for solo and small-firm lawyers who practiced part of the time out of their houses on the water.”

Bar members or not, Rice worries that there may be any number of lawyers with “Main Street practices” who desperately need help and just haven’t been heard from yet.

After a storm that struck hard but relatively quickly, bar executives and elected leaders all along the East Coast, like Rice, say they still have months of work ahead of them. They also have a renewed awareness of the importance of disaster planning and preparedness—and of some critical holes in whatever plans the bar already had in place.

Storm response relies on technology, and points to potential new investments

“We’ve learned a number of lessons from this,” agrees Angela Scheck, executive director of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

For example, she says, the bar’s email servers were inside the building, which was without power and closed for a week. The website was hosted off-site—in Brooklyn, which was also hit by the storm. The bar’s phone system did work, but many members were without phone service themselves.

Midway through the week, the bar was able to move the site to a different hosting location and then post updates there. Another important tool, particularly while the website was down, was social media. Both the bar and the court system used Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook to deliver information after the storm.

But, Scheck notes, “our lawyer population is large and diverse as far as use of technology.” That is, while some lawyers are regular users of social media, many others are not. Scheck believes that as a result of the disaster, a lot of people are now much more aware that social media can be used for critical information and not just for fun.

Scheck counts herself among that number: She is relatively new to Twitter and found that by “following” two electric companies—one for the bar and one for her home—she received much more accurate and timely service updates than were available anywhere else.

Text messages did go through for a lot of members even when cell phone service was down, Scheck says, adding that the bar is now looking at starting a service where members can sign up to receive emergency updates by text.

Also in the works, per the recommendation of an NJSBA staff task force that has met since the storm, are “mirrored servers” as off-site backup for the ones inside the building.

Another new technology investment will be hotspots that cost $40 to $50 each and would enable key staff members to get a signal for their cell phones and other devices even after a major storm.

But one big problem can’t be as readily solved, even if cash were available (and the bar lost revenue from three weeks of canceled programming, Scheck adds): There’s no easy way to install a generator at the bar headquarters. The building is all-electric, Scheck explains, and a generator requires a gas line. Adding a diesel tank is a way around that, but Scheck says this isn’t likely to happen.

And while the bar itself was down and struggling, so, too, were many residents throughout New Jersey, not just on the coast. Two weeks after the storm—and about a week after the bar headquarters itself reopened—the NJSBA had its disaster hotline, in partnership with the ABA Young Lawyers Division and FEMA, up and running.  About 250 to 300 volunteers have taken hundreds of calls, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

As with most such hotlines, there are the calls during which a volunteer can provide an answer that is enough to get the caller on track—and then there are the ones that are more complex and that require referrals to legal services providers. Scheck says NJSBA Counsel Sharon Balsamo has held regular conference calls with service providers throughout the state to ensure that the entire volunteer legal relief effort is carried out as efficiently and effectively as possible.

“This is the biggest effort that we’ve ever undertaken to provide disaster relief,” Scheck says.

Relief efforts not a short-term project

In Connecticut, the storm damage was “almost exclusively coastal,” says Connecticut Bar Association President Barry Hawkins. But that doesn’t mean the bar hasn’t been assisting with legal questions—and asking some questions of its own.

In addition to the bar’s hotline in conjunction with FEMA and the ABA YLD, its Insurance Law Section has its own separate line. The more general hotline has 16 volunteer lawyers who had helped 24 callers as of mid-January; through the insurance hotline, 18 volunteer lawyers and nine volunteer paralegals had done 25 intakes.

Many of the calls in Connecticut, Hawkins notes, have involved complicated filing questions that depend on whether the storm was still a hurricane by the time it hit the caller’s home or business. There’s a precise order in which claims need to be filed with FEMA and with insurance companies, Hawkins explains, and sometimes FEMA itself is less than clear in its directions. He expects calls to continue to come in as claimants compare notes and wonder why their results aren’t consistent.

There was consensus among all the bar leaders and executives we spoke with that another round of legal needs will likely present itself once some residents’ FEMA claims are denied and they look into whether and how to appeal.

Also keeping Superstorm Sandy at the forefront, Hawkins notes, are the recent reauthorization of FEMA and the $50.5 billion Sandy relief bill that was signed by President Obama in late January after lengthy congressional debate.

Disaster planning: A top priority, but easy to overlook

When Hawkins thinks about Superstorm Sandy—which caused him to evacuate his home, knocked out power there for eight days, and then resulted in a lawyer friend moving into his pool house for a couple of weeks—he also thinks about Hurricane Irene and the freak snowstorm that blasted much of the Eastern United States on Halloween 2011. What does it mean, he wonders, when “the storm of the century” is now a much more frequent event?

One thing it means, Hawkins and other bar leaders have found, is that the bar’s disaster plan—and the need to improve it—move to the top of the priority list. The problem is, there are so many other things at the top of that list that it’s all too easy to make a plan and then, as Scheck says, “let it get dusty on the shelf.”

The Connecticut bar does have a disaster plan, but it’s “not as good as it needs to be’” Hawkins believes. Improving it is now “higher on the agenda,” he says, adding that bar leaders there are now reviewing more closely the disaster-related information that was presented at the ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto in 2011.

These bar leaders are by no means alone in admitting that their disaster plans could be better. That’s one reason that the National Association of Bar Executives has formed its new Disaster Task Force (of which Scheck is a member). The Task Force, chaired by David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association, has had two conference calls, both in the months following Sandy.

The Task Force has reviewed the disaster preparedness and response information available through both NABE and the ABA and has found that it is up to date and helpful. What’s needed, the Task Force believes, are more frequent reminders regarding the need for disaster planning and business continuity. The Task Force intends to ask the NABE Program Committee and Webinar Committee to consider addressing these topics at Annual and Midyear and online, Blaner says.

Also in the works, he adds, are lists for NABE members to review when making their plans, and perhaps a similar list to be used by law firms and attorneys.

The Task Force also hopes to attain and post a sample disaster plan from a small bar; currently, Blaner notes, the sample plans available through the ABA Division for Bar Services are from larger bars.

‘Amazing cooperation’

The NABE Task Force isn’t the only way bars are working together to address the current crisis and prepare for future ones. Rice points to “amazing cooperation” among bars in her region—and outside it—as a key reason the Nassau bar has been able to respond as effectively as it has. Not many of the bar’s members were well-versed in FEMA and other disaster-related matters, she notes, and webinars through the New York State Bar Association, the New York City Bar Association, and law firm Skadden have been critical in helping them quickly get up to speed.

Rice also praises NYSBA President Seymour W. James, whom she says immediately got together a biweekly conference call for bar presidents in Downstate New York—the region that includes New York City and suburbs, Long Island, and other areas that were hard hit by the storm.

Both the Louisiana State Bar Association and The Florida Bar have been generous with their storm response expertise, Rice says, noting that it has been particularly helpful to learn from them about the FEMA appeals process and about what types of legal needs tend to come up after major storms, and what specific concerns typically arise at what specific points in the recovery process.

Scheck says it was helpful at the beginning of the recovery process to talk with NYSBA leaders about related efforts in that state. She echoes Rice’s gratitude for assistance provided by the Louisiana state bar, and she adds that The Mississippi Bar was “extremely helpful,” particularly regarding the FEMA appeals process, for which it shared a webinar it had developed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Scheck is also quick to praise her own staff and its desire to help others, even though many bar employees were themselves displaced and affected by the storm. The Monday that the bar headquarters reopened, the staff convened over pizza to discuss how to help. The staff then took up a collection of money and items such as bleach and cleaning supplies, diapers and other baby needs, and nonperishable food. Lawyers coming in to the bar for events have also donated, and so far, there have been five or six drop-offs of supplies in communities throughout the state.

“It’s really brought the staff together,” Scheck notes, adding that one of the biggest and most positive lessons from the storm is something she already knew but that has been reinforced: “We have a great group of people here.”