Wilma upsets legal system

first_img November 15, 2005 Regular News Wilma upsets legal system South Florida works to get back on track Jan Pudlow and Gary Blankenship Senior Editors Jay Feldman is a solo practitioner in Tamarac with a hurricane plan — but even the best-laid plans got blown away by Hurricane Wilma.He backed up and transferred copies of his computer records and documents to his home computer in Coral Springs, where underground utilities meant power was restored in just three days.He had enough cash on hand to pay bills, his small staff, emergency supplies, and equipment. He had business interruption insurance that he hopes will cover his loss. He had a back-up battery for his phone system, but still had to resort to cell phones blocked by jammed airwaves. He had a home generator that powered two phone lines, though he wished he had an old Buick to more easily siphon gas to keep it running.He subscribes to a voicemail system through the local telephone company that allows him to retrieve all messages from calls to his office that luckily suffered no damage.But still — when Wilma, the worst hurricane to strike Broward County in more than 50 years — Feldman couldn’t plan for everything.A week after Wilma blew through on October 24, tumbling trees that felled power lines, there was still no power. And without power, his office elevator won’t work. And when you specialize in elder law, well — many of those clients cannot reach his office on the second floor because they cannot climb stairs.“Perhaps the worst element of the entire experience was my inability to provide my clients or their families with needed services during this period of tribulation,” 57-year-old Feldman wrote in an e-mail October 31. “We elder law attorneys are especially sensitive to the vulnerability and dependence of the elderly.”Add to that a cable modem and DLS Internet service that wouldn’t work after the storm, and Feldman proclaimed: “We lawyers come to forget just how completely dependent we have become on technology, that is until a Wilma strikes.. . . It may sound quaint, in a Charles Dickensian sort of way, to practice law by candlelight, but it is not fun, and certainly not efficient!”Compared to many Florida lawyers, Feldman got off easy.Wilma came ashore 20 miles south of Naples as a Category 3 hurricane, losing little intensity as it cut a wide, destructive swath through South Florida’s most populous counties and knocked out power to a total of about 6 million people. On the East Coast, the blackout extended from Key West to parts of Brevard County, east of Orlando, a distance of about 400 miles.Some law offices in Broward County became danger zones.One heavily damaged building in downtown Ft. Lauderdale was 1 Financial Plaza, where several legal offices are housed and many windows were blown out. Recovery efforts were hampered on October 29 when two electricians working on the internal electrical system were injured, one seriously and one critically, in an electrical accident, according to Ft. Lauderdale police.Nancy Gregoire, a member of the Bar Board of Governors and of the Bunnell Woulfe law firm located in the tower, said the building’s owners expected to have it open by the second week of November.Recent hurricane seasons have improved her firm’s readiness, Gregoire said, noting it has an offsite service that allows voice mail messages and other functions, even though the law offices are closed.“It could be worse. We could be New Orleans. We have only wind damage,” she said.She also reported that as of October 31, she was hearing that many law offices were reopening, with the return of electricity and the easing of gas shortages.The Broward County Courthouse, one of the most dramatic symbols of Wilma’s widespread destruction, had more than 175 windows shattered, with glass blown inside, rendering courtrooms unusable and sending books and files to office floors in total disarray.“It makes Baghdad look tame,” Broward Circuit Judge Robert Lance Andrews told The Miami Herald. Marlene Michael, a spokesperson for the Broward County court administrator’s office, said they planned to have the courthouse fully open by November 7 (after this News went to press).She noted that the administrator’s office remained closed until October 31, and even then problems remained when workers returned. One was that callers could leave voice mail messages, but employees were unable to access those messages even though the phones were working.In downtown Miami, the scene of the most talked-about damage was to Greenberg Traurig’s national headquarters at 1221 Brickell Avenue, where 20 lawyers’ offices had broken windows.Eight days later, Cesar Alvarez, the chief executive of the firm, sat in his office with plywood covering windows, and was able to laugh about it all, even though the rest of the staff was not allowed back until the windows are replaced.“I tell people it’s no big deal,” Alvarez said. “A big problem is when my parents got here from Cuba and couldn’t speak the language, and had four kids, and no job, and there’s not enough Cuban coffee. This is just a little glass and a little cleaning up to do.”Important papers were stored in the hallways, away from the windows, he said. Telephones and electricity were up the day after the storm. Even with the gas shortage, lawyers in the Miami office, who make up just 10 percent of Greenburg Traurig’s legal staff, were able to work from home on their Blackberries or in the business office in Doral, 15 miles away.On the West Coast, Naples lawyer John Cardillo, a former Board of Governor’s member, called the situation “civilized chaos.”“We felt totally isolated for a week. It was like an outer-world experience. No phones, no e-mails, nothing but the mail. There are lawyers on the East Coast who had it just as bad. And they had cases over here and were not able to communicate. You know things are happening in your practice, and adverse parties have no idea what’s going on over here, and there’s no way to tell them.”Eight days later, on November 1, Cardillo said, “Things are back to relatively normal for the lawyers, but not necessarily for the judges,” explaining that some judges’ chambers at the Collier County Courthouse in East Naples were deluged with water from rain pouring in the third floor that ran down to the second floor.Key West had problems of a different nature: storm surge.Ed Scales, a member of the Board of Governors and Key West resident, said the island was hit with two surges, one from the Atlantic at 2 a.m. on October 24, and the second, more devastating, one at 6 a.m. from the Gulf of Mexico that reached six feet. Sixty percent of the island flooded, he said.“It is very, very bad, the water damage,” Scales said. “As far as law offices, I don’t know the extent of the damages. If the offices were on the first floor, the chances are there was significant damage. I’ve heard anecdotal stuff about folks losing their electronic stuff, their files, and any electronic equipment that they had on the floor.”Discarded refrigerators standing by the roadside with high water marks at their tops were mute testimony to the size of the surge, he said.“We are so fortunate in Monroe County that no one was hurt. Stuff can be replaced. People can’t,” Scales said.Courts in Monroe County reopened on October 31, and because of its smaller size would have less trouble coping than the larger circuits to the north.“The court system down here is really efficient and nobody will be too terribly inconvenienced,” Scales said.But it wasn’t always easy for court personnel to keep the courts running.Court Security Officer Kenny Alonso had to swim out the window of his mother’s flooded house in the Keys, but still reported to work to help Deputy Vashon Watson stand guard over the courthouse to minimize any damage during and immediately after the storm, according to the Florida Supreme Court.Two days after the hurricane, Chief Justice Barbara Pariente issued words of praise: “There are many heroes of the hurricane. But I must say that we especially owe a debt to our trial court judges who go out to the jails in storm-littered streets to hold first appearances and hear other emergency matters, such as domestic violence. This year and last, some of these judges even left their own damaged homes to serve the public.”center_img Wilma upsets legal systemlast_img

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