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  • Profile: Small-town attorney now a front-line disaster relief lawyer for FEMA

    Wisconsin attorney Charles “Chuttie” Senn is assisting devastated communities like Joplin, Mo., as a full-time deployable field counsel for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

    Joe Forward

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    Charles Senn

    Charles “Chuttie” Senn, who ran a solo practice for 30 years in Thorp, Wis., is now a full-time deployable field counsel for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, going where disaster strikes. He was deployed to Joplin, Mo., in May after a tornado killed 162 people and caused severe damage there.

    Dec. 7, 2011 – Charles “Chuttie” Senn, who worked as a solo practitioner for 30 years in his Wisconsin hometown of Thorp, is now “chasing tornadoes,” so to speak.

    As a full-time deployable field counsel for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Senn helps survivors across the country recover from man-made and natural disasters, including the tornado that leveled Joplin, Mo., just over six months ago.

    The Joplin tornado killed 162 people and destroyed approximately 8,000 homes and buildings May 22 when the category EF-5 twister rolled through town, bringing 200 mph winds.

    “It looked like a war zone. There wasn’t a building or tree that wasn’t damaged,” said Senn, who was deployed to Joplin two days after the tornado struck.

    FEMA’s “rolling” recovery office, a semi-truck with partitioned offices inside, remained in Joplin for nearly three months before a more permanent office was arranged. Today, there are more than 150 FEMA employees continuing to assist with the recovery efforts.

    A front-line lawyer

    Senn, a 1980 graduate of U.W. Law School, is one of FEMA’s front-line lawyers, working with federal, state, and local officials to resolve legal issues concerning disaster declaration, debris removal, temporary building construction, land use agreements, and public assistance.

    A former firefighter and emergency medical technician, Senn helped FEMA’s Joplin responder crew earn the 2011 FEMA Administrator’s Award for Innovation for the implementation of President Obama’s new debris removal initiative in Joplin.

    To assist Joplin, President Obama authorized an expedited debris removal program designed to jump-start recovery there. Senn’s team served as front-line advisors on the effort.

    Under the program, FEMA paid 90 percent of clean-up costs for 90 days, 15 percent more than the 75 percent usually allocated for such efforts. Senn advised FEMA staff and its partners on the debris removal process for quick and efficient solutions. Primary debris removal issues involved obtaining permissions to enter private property and assisting Joplin in developing summary procedures to deal with debris that posed a threat to health and safety.

    Tornado damage

    “Many groups met daily to assess progress and problems associated with debris removal,” Senn said. “As deployable field counsel, I attended those meetings to assist and search for solutions when necessary. Ultimately, the 90-day deadline was met, and nearly 3 million cubic yards of debris was removed from the hardest hit areas of Joplin.”

    Senn’s legal and first responder training combined for the perfect position.

    “FEMA is a way to use my legal training and ability to help people who need help now,” said Senn. “Often in law the results are not as immediate, but disaster law offers immediate rewards that people can see. There’s a real urgency for solutions in high-stakes situations.”

    The expedited debris removal team was essential in clearing the way for recovery and rebuilding. Senn also served as advisor to task forces on construction of temporary housing and critical facilities like hospitals, schools, and fire stations. Counties impacted by the May 22 tornado have received an estimated $174 million in federal assistance.

    These task forces succeeded in creating a temporary 400-bed critical-care facility, temporary classroom space to replace the eight schools that were damaged or destroyed for the current school year, and temporary housing for nearly 1,000 displaced families.

    “Three temporary housing sites were built from scratch, and every school-age child who needed housing had housing available to them before school started,” Senn said. “That’s pretty amazing when you remember that more than 7,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.”

    Getting there

    Charles Senn

    Senn, currently stationed at a joint office in Columbia, Mo., speaks with others on his FEMA team as they work to resolve issues that remain from the tornado devastation in that region. The team earned the 2011 FEMA Administrator’s Award for Innovation for the implementation of a new debris removal initiative in Joplin.

    Since his undergraduate days, Senn has actively assisted people and communities with urgent needs. He helped FEMA as an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) member for two years from 1976-77, then worked as a firefighter and EMT in Thorp from 1981 to 1994.

    “I got the bug for that kind of work,” said Senn, who volunteered in five disaster zones during his two-year stint with VISTA. “Many front-line workers like firefighters, soldiers, police, and search and rescue personnel are ‘operators’ as opposed to ‘facilitators’ or ‘advisors.’ Operators want to be in the action and really step into the fray, like adrenaline junkies.”

    Before FEMA, he honed his attorney skills as a small-town, solo practitioner for 30 years. So when FEMA came knocking with an on-call, part-time field counsel position in 2007, it was the perfect opportunity for Senn to combine his facilitation and first responder skills.

    For two years, Senn was deployed to several disaster zones for 30- to 45-day stints while keeping his solo practice running in Thorp. But when FEMA created full-time deployable field counsel positions in 2009, he was one of the first hired. He left his solo practice in Thorp and began his FEMA post just months before disaster struck in Joplin.

    Now, the debris is gone in Joplin. The swath of land engulfed by the May 22 tornado remains flat and treeless. But Senn says houses and buildings are popping up daily as residents reclaim their community with the help of volunteers.

    “To witness such a tremendous outpouring of support and volunteerism from people around the country is a heartwarming and gratifying feeling,” said Senn.

    Currently, Senn remains deployed at a joint field office in Columbia, Mo., to advise on remaining issues related to the tornado devastation in the region. When not on assignment, he reports to FEMA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    The origin of natural or man-made disaster will determine Senn’s next destination, and his next opportunity to help people rebuild. “It’s certainly a challenge,” Senn says. “But I really enjoy assisting communities and individuals as they put their lives back together.”

    By Joe Forward, Legal Writer, State Bar of Wisconsin