Hurricane Maria’s wide-spread destruction in Puerto Rico has hit island residents hard, leaving mainlanders who have family and coworkers on the island concerned about how they are getting by, and how to best help.
Pedro Torres-Diaz, a principal at Jackson Lewis in Miami and a former Hispanic National Bar Association president, is one of those concerned. Born and raised in Puerto Rico until he left for college, Torrez-Diaz returned home for law school and then worked at McConnell Valdes, the largest firm on the island. He later moved to Jackson Lewis in Miami, and four years ago he started his firm’s San Juan office to represent multi-jurisdictional commercial clients with operations there. Torres-Diaz recruited that office’s four attorneys and was managing principal of that office until last year. About 40 percent of his legal work is based in Puerto Rico. The rest is mainland-based.
His parents still live in Puerto Rico. He was in Miami during the storm.
We talked to Torres-Diaz about the impact of Hurricane Maria on his practice and on island residents in general. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Have you been to Puerto Rico since the storm?
I have made some effort to return. But my staff and my family in Puerto Rico have told me I could be more helpful to them coordinating whatever help they may need from Miami. The situation in Puerto Rico is such that additional visitors to the island only take away very scarce resources from the people who actually need it.
I’m making sure that I coordinate with my office manager to allocate resources that our firm’s San Juan office may need. The Jackson Lewis office is in a multi-story high-rise that is running on a generator. I’m not clear how the building gets its fuel. The number of lawyers at the office is not expected to change. For work typically handled for clients by the local attorneys, I’ve been able to help from the mainland in case my colleagues in San Juan are unable to assist those clients.
On a personal level, I’ve made sure my parents are OK and I’m trying now to find them passage to Miami, given that power is out and there’s scarcity of water and fuel. If they are so inclined, we’re talking about relocating them to the states on a temporary basis because they not only have children but also siblings in the U.S. who can accommodate them while the situation in Puerto Rico improves.
Since power is expected to be out in Puerto Rico for such a long time, are people planning to move to the U.S. mainland?
At least on a temporary basis, yes — that may be true. I suspect the current situation may accelerate the exodus that was already occurring. Puerto Rico may be facing a drain on population and professionals.
Many of the people I know are operational, but with generators, which means they are dependent on the availability of fuel, which as you’ve seen in the press is not as available right now. I suspect that at least on a temporary basis, many residents in Puerto Rico will seek cover elsewhere and come to the mainland in the coming days.
I know of many who have decided to stay and rebuild and, of course, I commend those efforts as well. But anecdotally I can tell you that many have communicated to me that they would like to seek other opportunities in the states.
In the legal profession, it’s a little more difficult to leave because you need to be authorized to practice in whatever jurisdiction you practice in.
How has the disaster shifted the kind of legal work that the San Juan office is handling?
The federal and state courts are closed, so no work on any pending litigation is moving forward. We are fielding questions from our clients on such issues as how to deal with their workforce while their operations are impacted by the storm. Many of our clients are concerned for the well-being of their employees on the island so they have consulted with us from a legal perspective on how to how to address those concerns.
Is the legal community doing anything to help?
I’m not aware of a concerted effort by Big Law firms, but I know of colleagues at law firms engaging in relief efforts. I’m not speaking on behalf of the Hispanic National Bar Association, but the HNBA is gathering resources to distribute, and also the American Bar Association has been active in contacting its members with information on how to assist from a legal aid perspective in this disaster. The HNBA is closely monitoring the situation and recently emailed members identifying resources that their members can avail themselves of to be able to provide legal assistance or direct relief, not only to Puerto Rico but to the other islands in the Caribbean that were affected by Hurricane Maria, as well as our brothers and sisters in Mexico who were affected by the recent earthquakes.
In Texas, the Supreme Court issued an order allowing out-of-state lawyers to come to the state of Texas and provide legal assistance to residents affected by Hurricane Harvey. That is something that I want to suggest to my colleagues in Puerto Rico: Allow attorneys —especially Spanish-speaking attorneys—who are not licensed in Puerto Rico to come to the island to provide legal assistance. That would be one way to increase the availability of legal aid to the residents who have been hit by the storm.
That’s more of a long-term need, however. The priorities for Puerto Rico right now are clearing roads, reestablishing communications, which are still poor, and ensuring availability of food and water to residents of the island.
Some of the regional organizations listed by the HNBA are:
Donations to Mexico and/or Puerto Rico
Latino Justice PRLDEF [Mexico & Puerto Rico]
Hispanic Federation [Mexico & Puerto Rico]
United for Puerto Rico [Puerto Rico]
Fondos Unidos [Puerto Rico]
Pro Bono Legal Volunteers
ABA Volunteer Legal Services for disaster relief [specific need for Bilingual or Spanish-speaking attorneys]