Damage from Hurricane Michael in southwest Georgia. (Courtesy photo) Damage from Hurricane Michael in southwest Georgia. (Courtesy of Bill Custer)

Growing up about 100 miles from the Gulf Coast, Atlanta litigator Bill Custer recalled that hurricanes tended to fizzle into more benign tropical storms by the time they reached his hometown of Bainbridge.

Hurricane Michael, however, was completely different. As the storm suddenly intensified last week, he raced to be with his parents in the southwest Georgia city and decided their best bet was to hunker down in a kitchen, away from the biggest trees near their house.

The winds—which at 115 mph reached Category 3 intensity—made “a terrible roar,” he said. The sound of 100-year-old pine trees blowing down was “like a bomb going off.”

“I can’t describe how shattered the landscape is,” said Custer, who stayed in Bainbridge until driving back to Atlanta on Sunday. He witnessed a 100-mile swath through the state with severe damage.

Estimating 1 of every 4 homes in the Bainbridge area was damaged, Custer thought the largest need for legal services would be helping victims with insurance claims.

Georgia Legal Services and state bar officials are organizing efforts to help them handle a host of legal issues.

Mike Monahan, who directs the State Bar of Georgia’s pro bono resource center, said residents need help right now with emergency benefit forms, identity card replacement, unemployment benefits and, in some cases, bankruptcy.

“A lot of people were already fragile economically” before the hurricane, Monahan added.

When rebuilding starts, people will need help dealing with insurance claims and construction contracts, among other issues, he said.

Monahan said the bar’s Young Lawyers Division is setting up a statewide hotline to advise residents needing legal help remotely. He asked anyone interested in helping to contact him at probono@gabar.org.

The emergency need for legal services in the affected areas exacerbates a long-standing problem in South Georgia, where some counties have few or even zero lawyers.

State Bar president Ken Hodges lives in Albany, which also was hit hard by the storm. “People have lost everything,” he said Monday.  He encouraged people to donate to direct relief agencies such as the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse.

The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association announced it is collecting relief items this week. The group and the Beasley Allen Law Firm are collecting bottled water, sports drinks, plastic tarps, gas cards and snacks (e.g., chips, granola bars, crackers, peanut butter, bananas, trail mix).

Contributions can be dropped off in Atlanta by noon Thursday at the GTLA at 101 Marietta St., N.W., Suite 3350, or the Beasley Allen office at 4200 Northside Parkway, N.W., Building One, Suite 100.