As historic Hurricane Dorian churned toward the Bahamas in late August, several forecasting models had the deadly storm tracking over or near the Florida peninsula. With dire predictions of near-200-mile-per-hour winds and epic rainfall in the uncertain forecast, The Florida Bar took no chances: Several pieces of a multifaceted disaster preparedness plan were activated.
“It was the first time we were able to open up a hotline and solicit volunteers before the storm actually hit,” says Santo DiGangi, president of the bar’s Young Lawyers Division. “We were ready if the storm hit.”
Meanwhile, Florida bar leaders kept daily tabs on the mercurial storm as it lingered off the Atlantic Coast before finally pulling away.
“We were communicating early and told people to stay tuned. We have a plan in place,” says Marcy Jackson, the bar’s chief financial officer, who also oversees emergency preparedness and response. “Staff knows that we’re going to communicate. During a storm, you typically lose cell service, which is why planning ahead is key. They know it’s going to be the same, storm after storm after storm.”
And when Dorian finally made a brief but powerful landfall on the North Carolina coast, another group of legal organizations—under the umbrella of Disaster Legal Services of North Carolina—was also ready with disaster response plans. Although a full response rollout wasn’t implemented in the state, volunteers were still ready to help, with some pressed into action.
“Every disaster provides us with a little more opportunity to improve our services, expand our services, and make sure we are getting the resources out to people who need it,” says Kim Bart Mullikin, senior director of the North Carolina Bar Foundation and a key member of the Disaster Legal Services team.
Whether they be hurricanes, floods, wildfires or other natural disasters, those opportunities seem to keep coming for Mullikin and other legal service providers. While not everyone pegs the activity to climate change, it’s one aspect of disaster preparedness that is clearly on the minds of many as they work to develop and hone plans to prepare for and respond to disasters. Advance planning and improving technology are key pieces of the process, whether it’s an external plan to help the public or an internal approach to make sure the bar and its members have the resources they need. And while many legal service providers continue to make strides in their planning efforts, challenges in funding, volunteerism and coordination remain, amidst growing unease about a problem that shows little sign of abating.