Despite massive piles of storm debris lining the roads, downed utility poles, homes and offices crushed beneath fallen trees and other storm-related destruction, the legal community is beginning to return to work in Wilmington, North Carolina, and surrounding areas more than a week after Hurricane Florence made landfall.
John Anderson, a partner at McGuireWoods in Wilmington, rode out the storm, which left about eight inches of water on the ground floor of his home. After the wind and rain subsided, he went out to find gas to keep his generator running, but instead found extremely long lines at the few pumps that were open. He was unsuccessful the first day, but ventured out again the following morning and was able to buy $50 in gas—after a five-hour wait in line.
“It’s been a surreal experience to see how the devastation can stop work in its tracks while the world outside Wilmington continues to move forward,” Anderson said on Monday, after he’d returned to his office for the first time since the storm.
Asked if he’d have done anything differently to prepare for the hurricane, Anderson said he would have established lines of communication with his local clients and kept a list of where they were staying during the storm.
In the aftermath of Florence, several lawyers said their first work-related priority was contacting clients, which has been difficult because of outages and the fact that many fled the area and some don’t have homes to return to anymore.
“It’s going to take awhile for things to get back to normal,” said Wilmington lawyer Ben Deaver, who has a general practice at Deaver & Deaver.
While some courts are still closed, Deaver said the local criminal court reopened its doors on Monday. But after only eight defendants showed up for first appearance hearings the judge said, “That’s it. We’re done for a week.”
“If you don’t show up you get automatic continuances,” Deaver said. “The criminal clerk’s office downstairs is flooded. It’s just a mess.”
Deaver, who has been trying to contact and pacify clients who are “freaking out because they can’t make it to court,” expected it would take at least several weeks for court administrators to sort out the calendar and establish new dates for all the continuances.
“For the civil stuff, the insurance companies out of the county are being sympathetic to our situation,” Deaver added. “They understand that we can’t get everything done right now.”
Cynthia Locklear, a family lawyer in Wilmington, said the storm ripped off part of her office’s roof. But she and her staff were able to relocate to a dry area of the building and were working despite the unpleasant odor of water damage.
“A couple attorneys saw my building and asked if they could help me move things out and get situated,” she said. “I think that these storms really bring people together.”
Woody White, a local criminal defense and personal injury lawyer who chairs the New Hanover County Commission, said he’d heard stories and read on social media about lawyers stepping up to help during the storm. He wasn’t yet aware of any organized groups of local attorneys offering volunteer services, but the North Carolina Bar Association is orchestrating a statewide effort to help.
“We’re all just coming out from under the storm and there’s not been enough time to organize officially,” he said. “Most folks are still focused on the basic necessities of life.”
And some are preparing for another round of devastation and evacuations as the deluge from Florence in inland areas makes its way along swollen rivers flowing toward the Atlantic. One city in the path of the coming flood is Georgetown, South Carolina.
Jill Carter, a receptionist at Bell Legal Group in Georgetown, was working Tuesday in a law office where valuable furniture had been stacked atop tables. Carter, who’d been watching store owners and their employees empty out buildings before the flood came to town, planned to finish out the work day and then head down the coast to Charleston.