Disaster Relief - Law Firms A Storm's Legacy: Renewed Faith In The Kindness of Strangers

Tuesday, November 1, 2005 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Welch, would you tell us something about your background and professional experience?

Welch: I am a native Mississippian and a native Jacksonian. I have been practicing law in Jackson since 1967. I do mostly civil trial work, both commercial cases and personal injury cases. I also do some insurance litigation.

Editor: And Butler Snow O'Mara Stevens &Cannada? I gather the firm has a longstanding presence in the region?

Welch: Butler Snow is the largest Mississippi-based firm in the state. We recently celebrated our 50th anniversary under our present firm name. We have about 145 lawyers in Jackson, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Memphis. Our Gulf Coast lawyers are now back and fully engaged in practice.

Editor: Did the firm have any kind of preparation for Hurricane Katrina?

Welch: We did not have a specific plan for Hurricane Katrina. We do have a protocol for hurricanes and other natural disasters. Pursuant to that protocol, we communicated with all of our employees who might be affected a few days before the storm hit. We let them know about the possibility that the office might be closed, and we encouraged them to follow evacuation recommendations from emergency personnel. We also arranged to be in contact with our people during and after the storm.

Editor: What sort of backup system or safety net was in place for the protection of documents?

Welch: We are more fortunate than a lot of our friends in solo practice who do not have the benefit of our technological support. All of our documents are electronically backed up off premises. We are able to retrieve evidentiary documents, pleadings, e-mail, and the like very quickly. Everything was available and in circulation within a couple of days of Katrina.

Editor: Was the intensity of the storm unanticipated?

Welch: I think we suffered under the impression that Hurricane Camille was the worst we could expect. What we anticipated in terms of flooding, the extent of the storm surge and the ultimate damage was much less than what in fact occurred.

Editor: Can you share with our readers any of the personal stories of your people over this period?

Welch: All of our people have been affected in some fashion by this storm. We have a number of attorneys and staff members at our Gulf Coast office who lost everything. One of my partners, Bob Galloway, lives in an area that was subjected to flooding during Hurricane Camille, and his home had been built with the essential systems above the flood line of Camille. This time, those systems were inundated. It is going to take a long time before his home, and those of many others, are repaired. Others, whose homes received light damage, took in those whose homes were destroyed. We had a group from Jackson, orchestrated by our chairman, Steven Rosenblatt, go to the Gulf Coast with building supplies to help with temporary repairs. They also helped recover files from the office there. Jackson is 150 miles north of the Gulf, and although we lost power for a few days, the physical damage was light. I do not think there was anyone in Jackson, however, who did not feel anxiety for friends and family elsewhere during this period.

Editor: What impact did the hurricane have on the justice system?

Welch: At this point the extent of the damage is unknown, but certainly it is extensive. Courthouses have been severely hit, and the damage to the offices where files are stored is very considerable, if not complete in some instances. As a consequence, orders have been issued permitting out-of-state lawyers to work here on a pro hoc basis. There have been blanket orders extending a variety of deadlines for all kinds of cases. Transactions have been postponed. If there is a silver lining here, I see it in the helping hand that so many of our lawyers are extending to their less fortunate colleagues. Many have simply had the infrastructure of their practices torn out from under them, and I am greatly heartened by the efforts of their fellow lawyers - many of them courtroom adversaries of long standing - helping them recover files, reconnect their communications capability and go forward with representing their clients. We have seen a great deal of good will come forth as a consequence of this terrible event.

Editor: What about the future? What needs to be done to ensure that a natural event such as Katrina does not have the catastrophic effect that it did this time?

Welch: We are not going to be able to control the force of a storm of this magnitude, but perhaps we can mitigate some of its impact in the future. Perhaps Katrina has done us something of a service in helping to safeguard life and limb. Certainly fewer people are going to stay and try to ride out the next storm of this size, and that is a good thing. From a professional point of view, the lawyers with electronic or safe offsite storage for their documents have experienced temporary, but not permanent disruption, to their practices, and that will encourage everyone to consider better document safeguards for the future. A heightened level of awareness, which is one of the legacies of this storm, is a step in the right direction.

Editor: Is there anything that you would like to add?

Welch: I would like to comment on the outpouring of support that I have witnessed, on both the giving and receiving end, as a consequence of this event. I am a member of a Hurricane Katrina disaster relief committee for a professional organization engaged in finding shelter for displaced people and resources of all kinds for those whose lives had been disrupted. The volunteers who stepped forward to help in these efforts were superb. When I was without power, I was contacted by a group of undergraduate friends I had not seen in years with offers of support. That scenario was played over and over throughout this period. Complete strangers simply helped those in need. For me, it indicates something about our country and its values, and I believe many of us have experienced a renewal of faith in the essential goodness of our people.