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    When Disaster Strikes

    In the wake of the Stoughton area tornado and hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Wisconsin Lawyer asked State Bar members about their experiences with some of the myriad issues surrounding disasters.

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 78, No. 11, November 2005

    When Disaster Strikes...

    In the wake of the Stoughton area tornado and hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Wisconsin Lawyer asked State Bar members about their experiences with some of the myriad issues surrounding disasters, including preparing for and recovering from disaster, aiding hurricane evacuees, and helping lawyers reestablish their prctices in hard-hit areas.

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  • ER Lawyer Prepares Wisconsin for Disaster
  • Messages from Gulf Coast Lawyers
  • Meeting Evacuees' legal needs
  • Helping Gulf Coast Lawyers Resume Practice
  • Help Hurricane Victims
  • Could Your Firm Recover?

by Dianne Molvig

ER Lawyer Prepares Wisconsin for Disaster

Attorney Randi Wind Milsap - Wisconsin's "answer person" regarding the legal questions that arise in the midst of a disaster, during recovery efforts, and in dealing with "what if" disaster-planning scenarios - sees her primary role as a problem-solver.

If there's a consistent lesson from man-made and natural disasters, it's that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to plan for everything that might happen. But attorney Randi Wind Milsap certainly tries.

Milsap is legal counsel to the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, based in Madison. As part of her duties she recently devoted much of an early October workweek to writing a report to Gov. Jim Doyle on the state of emergency preparedness in Wisconsin. It's a high priority topic, naturally, in the wake of recent tornadoes close to home and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita nearly a thousand miles away.

In fact, Milsap's job - a civilian position she's held for more than 12 years - is several jobs rolled into one. As legal counsel to the Department of Military Affairs, which is housed in the same building as the Wisconsin National Guard, she reports to Major General Albert Wilkening, Adjutant General of Wisconsin.

She's also chief legal counsel to the state's Division of Emergency Management, which is attached to the Department of Military Affairs. Plus, she's counsel to the state's Homeland Security Council, a seven-member advisory body appointed by the governor and chaired by Wilkening. On top of that, Milsap is "basically the general practitioner," as she describes it, for the Department of Military Affairs, providing soldier assistance and handling personnel and employment issues.

"It would be fair to say I learn something almost every day in my job," Milsap says. "Each disaster situation is unique. You store what you learn in your gray cells so you can use it again, or maybe use a variation of it."

Ongoing Lessons

She recalls, for instance, the March 1996 train derailment in Weyauwega, the largest disaster to date in Wisconsin. Railroad tanker cars strewn along the tracks were at risk of imploding and then exploding, which would have released highly toxic chemicals and endangered roughly 2,500 area residents. The situation called for an evacuation.

"It escalated quickly from a local event to a statewide event," Milsap says, "because of the number of people that had to be coordinated" to respond to the emergency. Once the event was declared a state disaster, the State Emergency Operations Center, located in Madison, was activated, assembling people with various expertise to aid in the response.

One of them was Milsap, who stood ready to answer the sorts of legal questions these crises typically trigger: Who's in charge? Who has authority to make which decisions? What are the liability exposures of various courses of action? And so on. One of the problems no one had foreseen in Weyauwega was pet evacuation.

The evacuation ultimately lasted three weeks, rather than the day, two days at most, projected at the outset. When people vacated their homes on the morning of the mishap, they'd left their pets behind. As the days and weeks wore on, they grew worried and wanted to retrieve their pets. But if people went into the "hot zone" and a tank exploded, they could be harmed, even killed. Another issue was that sending in rescue personnel alone might yield limited success, as animals might not come to strangers.

"We looked at the legal questions," Milsap says. "How can we get people in there? How do we reduce the risks? There were a lot of questions that sometimes required legal interpretations of the statutes or just creative thinking."

In the end, the officials in charge decided to bus in the pet owners, who'd signed liability releases, to an area outside the hot zone. From there, National Guard personnel drove people to their homes in armored vehicles. They pulled up at each house, let pet owners dash in to grab their animals, and quickly escaped back to safety. No one got hurt in the process.

"We'd never had a long-term evacuation like that before," Milsap points out. "But now in our emergency preparedness plans, we cover how to deal with pet evacuations."

Similarly, state emergency preparedness plans also will incorporate lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, Katrina is the post-doctoral seminar in emergency preparedness.

"It was an eye-opening experience on mass evacuation issues we'd never seen before," Milsap notes. "Who would have believed the gridlock on the roads? The special-needs populations that couldn't be evacuated because nobody had planned for that? What would we do here? What if we had to evacuate a major city in Wisconsin, or if we had an incident in a neighboring state and people got sent here?"

Other problems during Katrina lay in the details. For instance, some doctors and nurses decided on their own to fly or drive into Katrina-affected areas to help. "And then they sat around and handed out Band-Aids," Milsap says, "because there was no one there to accept credentialing of their licensure. Local officials would ask, `How do I know you're really a doctor?'"

Sure, in an emergency, they might not have bothered to ask such questions, taking whatever help they could get. "But that's a local call," Milsap points out. Lesson learned: Have a person on site charged with the task of verifying medical training credentials.

Offering Solutions

Dealing with "what if" disaster-planning scenarios is just one of Milsap's functions. She's also involved in the "what now" issues that spring up in the midst of a disaster or during the recovery phase. Her job is to be the answer person regarding legal questions.


Once a local event is declared a disaster that requires coordination and assistance of state agencies, the State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Madison is activated, assembling state experts to aid in the response. The state EOC, pictured above, coordinated Wisconsin's response and recovery efforts on behalf of Hurricane Katrina victims.

For instance, mobile homes left overturned in the wake of a tornado later need to be reconnected to water sources. "The municipal attorney or corporate counsel might call me," Milsap says, "because they can't get the permit to come through quickly enough. But you can circumvent the permitting process in a state of emergency. It's things like that. I can tell them what they can do and how they can do it."

Legal complications arising during an emergency response "vary by disaster," Milsap explains. "There's `good samaritan' law. There are a lot of liability questions. The statutes have specific language with regard to response teams and what happens if a volunteer gets injured."

And, yes, sometimes people involved in disaster response or recovery aren't keen on having a lawyer's input. Responders on the scene are eager to get to work to help people.

"The last thing they want to hear," Milsap notes, "is someone saying, 'Well, legally you need to be in your scope of authority or your scope of employment.' They don't want to hear that, but their municipal officials and municipal attorneys want to hear that. They want to make sure their people are taken care of and covered" for liabilities and injuries.

Every disaster response is, of course, replete with risks. Milsap's role is to make sure decision-makers understand what those risks are. "I advise people on their options," she says. "I don't tell them what to do. They have to assume the risks. But they at least have to make informed decisions. Part of that is knowing what exposures are out there."

For Milsap, the most frustrating parts of her job are that "there aren't enough hours in the day," she says, "and sometimes I'm hitting my head against the wall, thinking, `How can I make this happen?'"

More than anything, she sees her primary role as being a problem-solver. "A lot of it," she says, "is just knowing what you can and can't do. I try to figure out how you can work within the confines of the statutes and the law to help people."

And that's where the gratification enters in. "If I give them a suggestion," Milsap says, "and they take me up on it and it works, then I know I've helped. That's the satisfaction. I see my job as trying to make the law work for people."

Messages from Gulf Coast Lawyers

Three State Bar members tell what it's like to live and practice in Gulf Coast communities hard hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

One hundred sixty-seven State Bar of Wisconsin members live and practice in communities in Gulf Coast states hit by recent hurricanes. State Bar staff attempted to contact these attorneys to inquire about their welfare and what their fellow Bar members could do to help. Here three people share their stories of how they - and the legal system in general - are faring in the hurricanes' aftermath.

Rebounding in Biloxi

In the coastal city of Biloxi, Miss., many small law firms and sole practitioners had offices downtown, near the county courthouse. "Their offices were just washed away," says Patricia Dicke, who has practiced law in Biloxi for six years. She's a Two Rivers, Wis., native and graduate of Capital University Law School, Columbus, Ohio.

A couple of weeks after Hurricane Katrina, one displaced attorney in the area parked a recreational vehicle along I-90, with his law office sign on display to let people know he was open for business. "We're seeing all kinds of ingenuity," Dicke says. The Mississippi Bar also has set up computer-equipped office centers to help attorneys resume their practices.

Dicke's law firm - which has 20 attorneys in a Biloxi office and 10 attorneys in an office in Jackson, Miss. - was more fortunate. The Biloxi office, where Dicke works, reopened two weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

"We're about three blocks from the Gulf of Mexico," she reports. "The storm debris line stopped in our back parking lot." The storm did extensive roof damage and blew out windows. All office computers and servers, which had been wrapped in plastic, survived the storm. Many paper files had to be dried out.

"I do mass tort defense work all over the state," Dicke says. "About a year-and-a-half ago we started a system in which we scan every piece of paper that comes in. Even if we'd lost the paper files, we would have had our materials accessible" electronically. The firm also had back-up tapes of office records located off site on high ground.

The Mississippi Supreme Court issued an emergency order staying all trials and discovery until Oct. 31. Still, court officials say it will be many more months before jury trials can resume because people will continue to be unavailable to serve as jurors. Missing witnesses and lost evidence compound the problems.

Many of Dicke's coworkers lost their homes entirely. Her home suffered mostly roof damage, and she's had friends staying with her who lost their home. They'll probably end up in a FEMA trailer parked in Dicke's driveway for several months.

While New Orleans has been, understandably, a focus of attention, "One of the problems we're having is that people aren't as aware of the devastation in southern Mississippi," Dicke says. "We need a lot of money here to rebuild."

Marking Milestones

The first time Mike Schneider was able to get back into his New Orleans office, located across the street from the federal courthouse, the building still had no electricity. "It must have been 100 degrees in there," he recalls. "I was gathering stuff and throwing it in boxes, holding a flashlight in my teeth."

Fortunately, Schneider needed to retrieve only some case files and a few printers, thanks to advance planning. A Milwaukee native and Marquette University Law School graduate, Schneider is a senior staff attorney for the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which encompasses Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Before Katrina hit, the court office's nine support staff and 56 attorneys evacuated and put their continuity-of-operations plan into motion. "We'd practiced working from remote locations on and off for about a year," Schneider reports.

The attorneys grabbed a few cases apiece, along with their laptops. With all telephones and cell phones out, the attorneys were able to rendezvous later via laptops from scattered locations. A core group, including 10 attorneys and all the support staff, is now working with Schneider in a temporary office in the federal courthouse in Houston, 300 miles from New Orleans. The other attorneys are working from their homes or federal courthouses in other cities. Everyone was up and running about two weeks after Katrina.

"If there's a lesson in this, it's preparation," Schneider says. "Everybody probably laughed when we were practicing [the plan]. But it came in handy when we needed it. Everyone knew what to do."

Still, the hurricane took a heavy personal toll. Schneider and his coworkers all had homes damaged and, in some cases, completely destroyed. Some will never return to live in their old neighborhoods, now heavily polluted.

As for their workplace, the New Orleans building in which their office was located suffered wind and water damage, but was outside the hardest-hit areas. It will be many months, however, before Schneider and the others return to work there.

"It's hard to measure it in time; it's in milestones," he says. "We have to wait until there's water, sewage service, hotels to put up the judges and attorneys who come in to hear and argue cases. All those things have to be in place before we can go back."

Facing Uncertainties

LaVerta Lundy, a U.W. Law School graduate, finally was able to return to see her New Orleans home on Oct. 1, nearly five weeks after vacating it. She found the house still standing, but uninhabitable and unrepairable. "The mildew and mold now live in my house," Lundy says. "My family and I can never live in our house again."

She and her husband lost everything, except for the few books and photographs they were able to salvage. They're staying with relatives in Ruston, La., 300 miles north of New Orleans. A son who'd been attending Dillard University in New Orleans is now one of the displaced students accepted by Howard University in Washington, D.C. Another son is an Atlanta resident, and a third son worked for a New Orleans company that filed bankruptcy after Hurricane Katrina.

Lundy hopes to return to her job at Dillard University, a 135-year-old college originally established for black students, where she's an assistant professor of English (she holds a master's in English from the U.W., as well as a law degree). Because of heavy student interest in law, Lundy created a course called Law, Literature, and Research. "I am happy to say that many of my students have been accepted into accredited law schools," she says. She also teaches a media law class in the journalism school and was in the process of creating a minor in legal studies at Dillard.

But it will be some time before she's back to work. The college, situated near one of the broken levees, suffered the worst losses of any of New Orleans' universities, exacerbated by the fact that the school couldn't afford flood insurance premiums. Dillard University plans to resume classes perhaps as early as January 2006 in temporary space provided by Tulane University.

For Lundy, getting back to work also will require finding a new place to live in New Orleans, as well as replacing the computer equipment and teaching materials lost in the flooding of her campus office. Like many New Orleans residents, she's met frustration in collecting on the property and flood insurance claims on her home. She finally got an advance on her claims, which will help sustain her for a while.

"I feel blessed because I have seen people who only have a cot in a shelter," she says. "That could have been me."

Meeting Evacuees' Legal Needs

Attorneys Tanner Kilander and Julie Darnieder set up a legal clinic to help hurricane evacuees sheltered at State Fair Park. When the shelter closes, they'll continue to coordinate volunteers to provide hands-on legal assistance for evacuees and low-income people at the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic's House of Peace.

As hurricane evacuees have settled into Milwaukee, their needs for legal assistance may only have begun. "I don't think the need is going to taper off for months to come," says Tanner Kilander, a Milwaukee attorney who helped organize the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic's help desk at the State Fair Park shelter, where some 600 evacuees lived on first arriving in Milwaukee.

"Legal needs are not the first thing on people's minds," she says. "They're more concerned about food, shelter, and jobs. But as those things have started to fall into place, we're seeing an increase in traffic flow at the shelter clinic."

Kilander and fellow Milwaukee attorney Julie Darnieder are both on the steering committee of the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, which regularly provides legal assistance at the House of Peace community center. The two women coordinated the effort to recruit lawyer volunteers to cover two 90-minute shifts at the State Fair Park shelter clinic, four days a week, beginning Sept. 19.

"A lot of people needed help interpreting their insurance policies," Kilander says, "and they needed help maneuvering around in systems they're not used to. We also had folks who came in and said, `I had a court date scheduled in September, but I can't find my lawyer and I don't know if the court is meeting. I don't know what to do. Can you help me?'"

By early October, about 200 evacuees remained at the State Fair Park, with the rest finding other housing. But the latter were continuing to return to the shelter clinic for legal assistance. Now with the Red Cross closing the shelter at the end of October, the legal clinic will relocate to the House of Peace.

The House of Peace (HOP) will expand its hours to 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. each Tuesday. The HOP, located just a few blocks north of Marquette University at 1702 W. Walnut St., has a structure similar to the State Fair Park clinic - clients visit on a walk-in basis and volunteers provide legal advice and referrals, but no ongoing representation. At the HOP, each attorney is partnered with two law students who participate in client interviews, assist with research, and do the intake paperwork. Volunteer attorneys are needed to help staff the added hours.

Evacuees' legal needs will continue to evolve, Kilander says. Volunteer lawyers handle diverse and often unusual legal questions: Is it proper service to send certified mail to a last-known address that you know is under water? Do you need to pay rent for your apartment if it's technically habitable, but there are armed guards outside who won't let you in?

"We do a lot of, `Wow, I never thought of that,'" Kilander notes. "But it's all researchable. We've been able to come up with advice, if not a perfect answer, for most people who have questions." The State Bar is providing free LexisNexis research and professional liability coverage for volunteer attorneys.

"Like everyone, I wanted to help these folks who had been through such tragedy," Kilander says. "Yes, I can send my money to the Red Cross. But I have a skill, and I might as well use it. It's been nice to offer these people something concrete."

To volunteer, contact Kilander at com tannerkilander hotmail hotmail tannerkilander com or (414) 640-8824.

Julie Darnieder, James Brennan, Tanner Kilander, and 



From left, attorneys Julie Darnieder, James Brennan, Tanner Kilander, and Jessica Abbott provide or help coordinate volunteer legal services to hurricane evacuees at the Red Cross shelter at Milwaukee's State Fair Park. Photo: Tony Anderson, Wisconsin Law Journal

Helping Gulf Coast Lawyers Resume Practice

Wisconsin lawyer Ross Kodner wasted little time in assembling a network of legal technologists and legal product vendors to help Gulf Coast lawyers return to practice in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Gulf Coast attorneys face enormous challenges in reviving their law practices. To assist them, Ross Kodner, senior legal technologist/CEO at Milwaukee-based Microlaw, launched HelpKatrinaLawyers.org, a network of "the top legal technologists and legal product vendors across North America," Kodner says.

The group stood ready to volunteer within days after Hurricane Katrina hit. "We quickly realized that immediately after the hurricane and all the flooding," Kodner says, "people weren't thinking about booting up their computers, billing time, and making money. They were thinking about their families and the basics of life. As people started figuring out that everybody was okay, the requests started trickling in."

By early October, the group had assisted about a dozen attorneys, all with small firms or sole practices. For instance, one New Orleans attorney lost her entire practice, including her Internet service, and was desperate to get in touch with her clients. Within 24 hours, volunteers had created a Web site so she could reconnect with clients and other attorneys, and then helped her rebuild her computer system.

Another attorney had an office in the heavily devastated ninth ward of New Orleans. Before Katrina hit, he'd removed all his computers to his home where he was attempting to set up a temporary office. "He called us and said, `I've got all this stuff, but I don't know anything about it. I don't even know where to plug in all these cables,'" Kodner reports. "A few of us got on the phone with him and said, `Describe the end of the cable. Tell us what it looks like.'" In that way, they talked him through the process of reassembling his equipment and also worked with Bell South to restore his broadband service.

"What we've been doing is triage," Kodner says, adding that he expects requests for assistance will continue, perhaps increase, as lawyers rebuild their livelihoods. The Louisiana State Bar Association reports that at least one-third of all New Orleans lawyers are unable to access their offices or resume their practices. Other Gulf Coast attorneys also have had their practices severely disrupted.

Kodner adds that some people have asked why he's helping lawyers, rather than "regular" people. "All the `regular' people are going to be bombarded with legal problems," he points out. "So my sense was that the best way to serve the public, given what I know how to do, was to get the lawyers back in practice so they could help people. That is the overall intent."

For more information, visit www.helpkatrinalawyers.org, or contact Kodner at com rkodner microlaw microlaw rkodner com or (414) 540-9433.

Help Hurricane Victims

In the coming months, hurricane victims will face complex legal problems as they struggle to reclaim their lives. You can help. Find out how. Visit www.WisBar.org.

To assist lawyers:

  • Helpkatrinalawyers.org. Volunteer technological expertise or donate legal products to help lawyers rebuild their practices. Contact Ross Kodner at com rkodner microlaw microlaw rkodner com, (414) 540-9433.
  • American Bar Association. Offers comprehensive information on helping lawyers recover their practices, including links to local and state bar disaster-relief programs. www.abanet.org/katrina.

To assist the public:

  • State Bar of Wisconsin. Coordinating free legal services to displaced persons who relocate to Wisconsin. Contact org jbrown wisbar Jeff Brown, (800) 444-9404, ext. 6177.
  • Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic at Peace House. Contact Tanner Kilander at (414) 640-8824, com tannerkilander hotmail hotmail tannerkilander com.
  • American Bar Association. Hurricane Katrina Web site offers comprehensive information on helping citizens with their legal issues. www.abanet.org/katrina.

Could Your Firm Recover?

To help your firm minimize damage and recover if the unthinkable happens, visit the Law Practice Management content area on WisBar for links to the following resources and more:

  • Risk Management articles from Wisconsin Lawyer magazine, covering records management and disaster recovery
  • "Planning for Disaster and Recovery is NOT Optional," Wisconsin Lawyer article by Ross Kodner, steps to take before a disaster hits
  • ABA Division for Bar Services Web Disaster Relief Resources, including disaster planning practice management resources, relief resources, and more
  • Disaster Recovery: Steps to Take in Recovery Effort, from the Tennessee Bar Association
  • LawNet Inc. White Papers: Disaster Preparedness/Disaster Recovery, articles on disaster-related topics
  • Legal Management Resource Center Documents, articles from the Association of Legal Administrators' Legal Management Resource Center

Dianne Molvig operates Access Information Service, a Madison writing and editing service. She is a frequent contributor to area publications.