When Justin Freedhand returned to his Belle Harbor office after Hurricane Sandy he found a pile of smoldering ruins.
“The embers of each building just blew into the building next to it. They were like fireballs going from one building to the another,” said Freedhand, describing the scene in the Rockaway, Queens, neighborhood. “When I first saw the office, it was just smoldering rubble. The fire hadn’t even burnt out.”
But Freedhand, 42, said he is determined to rebuild the Freedhand Firm, where he and his wife, Lorraine, and his father, Martin, focus on litigation and real estate. Freedhand, who has been working at temporary office space in Brooklyn, said he has been counseling Rockaway residents on a pro bono basis on insurance issues while sorting out his own financial challenges.
Above, recipients of the ALM Law Firm Relief project, from left: Brian Peknic and Charles Peknic of Peknic, Peknic & Schaefer; Justin Freedhand of the Freedhand Firm; and solo John Howley. Below, Justin Freedhand stands on the ruins of his Belle Harbor office, which was destroyed by fire during Hurricane Sandy. NYLJ Photos/Rick Kopstein
One source of support is the ALM Law Firm Relief Project, which will help Freedhand and two other small law firms to regroup after Sandy through a gift of $2,500 in cash; a year online subscription to books published by Law Journal Press; and a one-year subscription to a bundle of legal research and information products, including the New York Law Journal, Smart Litigator NY, CLE from CLECenter.com and VerdictSearch.
ALM launched its program on Nov. 7, inviting law firms in three states that had been hit hard by the storm to apply for assistance. A team of ALM executives selected recipients based on the level of devastation to their firms and the positive impact their communities would experience if the firms could reorganize quickly, said Lenny Izzo, ALM’s chief marketing officer.
“There are so many legal services that these small law firms provide that help local businesses,” Izzo said.
The other firms on ALM’s recipient list are Rockaway Park solo practitioner John Howley, and Peknic, Peknic & Schaefer in Long Beach.
ALM will also offer replacement of Law Journal Press and other books damaged as a result of the storm, and the company made a donation to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, Izzo said.
For Freedhand, the cash support will contribute to day-to-day operating expenses and supplies, such as mail service and ink and toner, he said. Freedhand said his firm lost multiple computers, printers, copy machines and 10 years of stored files.
“Simple things are gone,” he said, “and we have to rebuild and start from scratch.”
Freedhand owns the building that housed his office and rented out the upstairs apartments. Though he said he has insurance for the property loss, he does not have coverage for loss of income and the apartment residences.
“I’m digging into my savings,” he said, adding that the family is filing a financial aid application for his daughter’s school.
But Freedhand, a third-generation resident of Belle Harbor, said he will rebuild and hopes to break ground this spring.
Though days are spent getting the firm up and running, he said he is offering his Belle Harbor neighbors pro bono representation with insurance claims.
“Everybody was expecting to get paid by their insurers, so now what happens is that people are realizing that their insurance companies are not their friends,” he said. “Now I’m getting the calls” for consultation on insurance policies.
‘I’m Not Moving Away’
John Howley, 81, a personal injury lawyer, has practiced law in Rockaway since 1963. His office on the second floor of a Rockaway Park building was not damaged, but water and debris destroyed communications systems and the building’s entrance, he said.
Thousands of records on open and closed cases were destroyed in his basement, garage and in a storage facility at another location. Now Howley is in the process of recreating files.
Lenny Izzo, ALM’s chief marketing officer, left, and Hal Cohen, publisher of the New York Law Journal, right, present checks to John and Marie Howley, above, Brian Peknic and Charles Peknic, below, and Justin Freedhand, bottom. NYLJ Photos/Rick Kopstein
He couldn’t return to his office and home for two months. Meanwhile, in the weeks after Sandy, many neighbors turned to Howley, a Rotary member, for advice on who to contact at FEMA and city departments for various services.
Howley lost both his cars in the storm, and his home experienced $100,000 in damage, he said. A piece of his house tore off and ripped his water line, while an oil tank in his basement was smashed, releasing gallons of oil.
“My house stinks of oil,” he said.
Howley and his wife temporarily moved in with their daughter, in whose home he worked until they moved to a hotel provided by FEMA.
The relief from ALM, he said, will be used to pay back his daughter.
“She fed me and my wife” and other family members, he said.
Howley said he will continue to work full time and only plans to retire “when I can’t make the stairs.”
“I’m not moving away from the area, and I’m not retiring. I like what I do,” Howley said.
‘People Need Attorneys Here’
At five-attorney Peknic, Peknic & Schaefer in Long Beach, more than three feet of water rushed into the firm’s office, which is one block from the ocean and one block from the bay, said firm partner Charles Peknic, 43, who runs the firm with his brother Brian Peknic and Sean Schaefer.
Furniture, office supplies, library materials, copy machines and much of the wooden flooring was damaged. After working remotely and in temporary space, attorneys and staff returned to the Long Beach office in late December.
On a personal level, a number of attorneys also suffered damage to their homes.
At the office, “the walls had to be gutted, the floors were ruined,” said senior paralegal Debbie Bucking. The firm still needs to restock supplies and repair its floors, kitchen area and fix its roof, she said.
“We look like we’re together but we’re missing a lot,” Bucking said. “It’s been a real struggle to get back on our feet.”
Attorneys at the general practice firm handle real estate, criminal, corporate, personal injury, trusts and estates and litigation. The lawyers are servicing clients but everything takes longer, Peknic said.
Bucking noted that the firm has been one of the few businesses open in the west end of Long Beach.
“People need attorneys here, especially at a time like this,” she said.
The firm has been giving advice on insurance policies and FEMA assistance while reviewing contracts and leases, among other work, most of it pro bono, Peknic said.
When clients came in asking for help, “We would bring them into a conference room, which was a completely gutted room and sit down…while our entire office was being worked on”, said Peknic. “The work attire for about a month was jeans, sweatshirts and work boots.”
The firm did not have flood insurance and is faced with about $100,000 in damages, which Peknic said the firm will cover.
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