Members of a private critical crisis search and rescue team inspect a vehicle partially submerged in floodwaters during Tropical Storm Florence in Beulaville, North Carolina, on Sept. 16. Photo Credit: The Associated Press

With the remnants of Hurricane Florence finally moving away from the drenched and battered Carolinas, lawyers and law firms in the hardest hit areas are trying to figure out how to forge ahead.

“It’s not like you can relax and focus on work when you’re thinking about everyone who stayed behind,” said Hal Kitchin, a now-stranded evacuee and business litigator at McGuireWoods‘ law office in Wilmington, North Carolina. Widespread flooding has made roads impassable and marooned his city of more than 117,000.

Those who rode out the storm are stuck in Wilmington and dealing with power outages, spotty cellphone service, looters and shrinking supplies of food, fuel and other resources. Elsewhere, evacuees who are eager to return home are being told to stay put until the roads reopen.

“So far we haven’t heard of any law offices that have been destroyed or ruined. But I’m sure there were some,” said Alice Mine, assistant executive director of the North Carolina State Bar. She added that she’d also heard reports of flooded courthouses, but was unsure of their locations as the information slowly trickled in from throughout the state.

Florence’s heavy rains also made a mess in South Carolina, especially in the northern part of the state, and affected the state’s legal community, though most county and state offices appeared to be open on Monday.

Kitchin and his family evacuated before Florence made landfall three days ago and he’s been using a friend’s office space. His files were backed up on servers and he has the same level of connectivity on the road that he had back in his office, but it has been difficult to concentrate.

“I’d like to be back there and be in the neighborhood and trying to help other people,” Kitchin said. “As much as I’d like to be back there, I have two small kids and a wife and I don’t feel like we’re going back until we know we have power on at the house.”

Marshall Wall, a managing partner in Raleigh, North Carolina, at Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, which has an office in downtown Wilmington, said he shuttered that branch and had electronics moved out of the building and paper files relocated as Florence approached on Sept. 11.

“We closed the office with the idea that people were going to need to deal with things at home and, in a lot of cases, pack up,” he said.

In the wake of Florence, which has resulted in dozens of court closures throughout the state, including federal courts, Wall said he’s been “trying hard to keep track of everyone.” Some have been working at the firm’s Raleigh office, others evacuated elsewhere and some stayed to face Florence.

“Nobody was harmed, so that’s good. But we have lots of trees down and people can’t get out,” Wall said of his Wilmington lawyers. “We tried to make plans to make sure people had some kind of connectivity. Now, people are doing things when they can.”  

He added, “It’s been a wild couple of days.”

Wall said he and other lawyers at the firm have been talking about trying to get supplies into Wilmington, but they’ve been stymied by the road closures. However, they’ve added some resources to the firm’s website to help people who have been affected by the storm as they regain power and internet connectivity.

“It’s just trying to give them at least a little bit of free information,” Wall said.

The North Carolina Bar Association also has a website with resources for the public, volunteer lawyers and attorneys who are trying to recover from storm damage. And it’s poised to activate a disaster legal services hotline with Legal Aid of North Carolina and the American Bar Association, according to Russell Rawlings, the NCBA’s communications director.