Hurricane Florence. (NASA via AP)

 

As Hurricane Florence bears down on the East Coast, resulting in widespread closures of courts and law offices, local lawyers in the Carolinas are finding ways to weather the storm.

“It’s such a great opportunity when the courts close and the phones aren’t ringing to catch up on a never-ending to-do list,” said prominent Charleston, South Carolina, criminal defense lawyer Andy Savage, who was in the office on Wednesday. “We’re getting to do the things that you never get a chance to do.”

Another lawyer based in the city, family law attorney Gregory Forman, said he’d met with a new client earlier in the day at his office, which is less then two block from his condo.

“I’m in shorts and a T-shirt,” he said. “Until the rains and winds start, I’m accepting work. I’ve got to make money.”

But, of course, not everyone was sticking around to wait for Florence’s arrival.

Mary Fran Quindlen, a South Carolina family law attorney in flood-prone Beaufort, closed her law office and told her eight staffers not to come to work. Then she packed and headed to Walt Disney World in Florida with her 11-year-old child shortly after South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation order, which he later lifted.

“I will not be a person who says, ‘come in anyway,’” she explained.

After driving through the night to Orlando, Quindlen said she learned that McMaster had lifted the evacuation order on Tuesday, which sent her into a panic. She thought the courts might reopen, which meant that she’d have to return to South Carolina for a hearing.

“It’s been a complete cluster. … Do I pack the car and get a ton of caffeine and go back to Beaufort?” Quindlen said. But she later learned that the courts remained closed.

Kenneth Gaines, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law in Columbia, which was closed for the week, said the shelves in the local stores were getting bare. But, luckily, he’d already stocked up.

“You just try to weather the storm,” he said.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, which was expected to be ground zero for the hurricane, local criminal defense and personal injury lawyer Woody White, who also chairs the county commission, said he’d closed his law office on Tuesday.

“Every law firm that I know of is closed down,” he said. “As a lawyer who runs a business, I worry about my employees and the court system will continue cases and ultimately smooth itself out. But the loss of business and the loss of access to new clients is always a concern.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Quindlen said she wasn’t bringing in clients as she dealt with the storm damage.

“It was a hard year,” she said. “There were credit card bills that I took on to make sure that everybody got paid.”

Numerous courts on the state and federal level in the Carolinas have already closed or are due to close as Florence continues its approach.

Roger Young, the chief administrative judge for the South Carolina Business Court in Charleston compared the preparations for Florence to 1989’s Hurricane Hugo. That storm caused widespread damage in the state, including to the Charleston County courthouse building, which then took several years to rebuild.

Young said he wasn’t worried about the current courthouse’s ability to withstand a major hurricane, but he also noted the logistical challenges that stemmed from putting court proceedings on hold.

“It’s hard to imagine how we’re going to have a functional court until the middle of next week,” Young said. “You just have to deal with the reality once [the storm] passes.”