A woman who identified herself as Valerie walks along flooded President Street after leaving her homeless camp after Hurricane Matthew caused flooding on Oct. 8, 2016, in Savannah. Matthew plowed north along the Atlantic coast, flooding towns and gouging out roads in its path. (Photo: Stephen B. Morton/AP)
Savannah firms are battening down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Irma.
Along with other businesses, the city’s two largest firms, HunterMaclean and Oliver Maner, will close Friday, as lawyers and staff secure their homes and prepare to evacuate. Miles Mediation & Arbitration also reported that it is closing its Savannah office for Friday and Monday.
“The parking lot is about half-empty, and downtown Savannah is starting to look like a ghost town. Everyone is preparing as if we’re in the eye of the storm,” Oliver Maner partner Bill Franklin said Thursday.
The National Hurricane Center has forecast that Irma will hit the Georgia coast on Monday. The record-breaking storm caused widespread destruction in the Caribbean this week and was expected to approach Florida by the weekend.
Even though Savannah is no stranger to hurricanes, Franklin said, “After seeing what’s happening in Texas [after Hurricane Harvey], it’s made a real believer out of a lot of people.”
People were moving computers away from windows and into hallways and making sure they had each other’s cellphone numbers in preparation for leaving town, he said. Oliver Maner is located in the heart of the city at 218 W. State St.
Gov. Nathan Deal at noon Thursday issued a mandatory evacuation order that goes into effect Saturday for Chatham County, the Georgia coast east of I-95 and some areas west of I-95 on the recommendation of the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.
Chatham County courts will be closed from Friday through Tuesday, said chief deputy clerk Shana Ruff of Chatham Superior Court.
Schools in Chatham and other coastal counties are closed Friday, and Friday night football games have been canceled in the region.
At HunterMaclean, managing partner Brad Harmon also said hurricane preparations were well underway. “The main thing is to make sure everyone is safe and out of Chatham County,” he said.
But before then, Harmon said, the firm needs to ensure that everyone has remote access to the email and document retention server, that litigators know about any deadlines in other courts they have for next week, and that deal lawyers have access to the firm’s bank account wire so that client transactions can go through.
One thing they learned after Hurricane Matthew last year, Harmon said, was to make sure there is plenty of money available in the firm’s operating account so that, if people are out for an extended time, the firm can still fund operations.
“Matthew caused Savannah to be evacuated for the first time in 18 years—and Irma appears to be a lot larger storm, so people are attuned,” Harmon said.
Last October, Matthew followed the same path up the Florida and Georgia coast predicted for Irma. Even though that hurricane did not make landfall in Savannah, it still did a lot of damage. “People are still carting away trees and debris from that,” Franklin said.
Lending a Hand
An evacuation can mean people aren’t able to return to their homes and offices for several days. Harmon recalled that HunterMaclean closed on a Friday for Matthew and did not reopen until the following Thursday—four business days later.
Based on the firm’s experience with Matthew last year, Harmon said, there will be at least a week of lost productivity from the evacuation and likely closer to two weeks, even if people are working remotely. “There is anxiety on the front end, then the evacuation, and then when people come back they are focused on other things,” he said.
Finding a place to go can also be difficult. Hotels in Macon and Augusta are already booked, according to news reports.
Tom Carlock of Carlock, Copeland & Stair in Atlanta offered Franklin office space for anyone at Oliver Maner who needed it.
“That’s available to Bill’s firm or any firm along there. We can put them in space,” Carlock said, adding that other Atlanta lawyers would respond similarly to any evacuated lawyers from the coast.
“If you called any law firm, they would say ‘sure,’ and set them up in an office or conference room. All they have to do is come here,” Carlock said.
HunterMaclean, like Oliver Maner, is located in downtown Savannah at 200 E. Saint Julian St. “It’s a safe place to be if you’re forced to stay here,” Harmon said, noting that the building formerly housed the Army Corps of Engineers. “We’ve had some lawyers who live downtown ride out the storm there.”
Franklin said he’s stayed in Oliver Maner’s building for a hurricane, because it’s solidly built and on high ground. “The trouble with staying is what to do after it passes. Everything is impassable.”
“What I’d do if I was there,” Carlock said, “is I’d park my car on top of a parking deck and get the hell out of Dodge.”