Louisiana’s legal community learned valuable lessons from Katrina and Rita in 2005, lessons we are now sharing with a global audience. By Frank X. Neuner Jr.

Friday, July 19, 2013

photo3
Shirin Ebadi, left, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder and
president of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran, Iran,
with her interpreter; and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Ellen Gracie Northfleet, former chief
justice of the Brazilian Supreme Court.

Nearly eight years have passed since hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall in south Louisiana. The mere mention of these historic storms conjures news images of personal tragedy and destruction. Absent from the media coverage, but greatly troublesome, was the severe damage suffered by Louisiana’s legal system — both civil and criminal. As president of the Louisiana State Bar Association at the time, I witnessed firsthand the damage suffered by our legal system, its shortfalls in a disaster and its ability to recover stronger than before. I was recently provided a unique opportunity to share our story on a world stage through an invitation to speak at the World Justice Forum IV in The Hague, Netherlands.

Leaders and change agents from around the globe gathered from July 8 to 11 to explore and discuss rule of law issues. The forum is sponsored by the World Justice Project, an independent nonprofit founded in 2006 by former Microsoft general counsel and former American Bar Association President William Neukom. More than 550 participants from 125 countries and 25 disciplines attended active breakout sessions to learn and exchange ideas about the framework of rules and rights that make prosperous and fair societies possible.

I was surrounded by distinguished guest speakers, including U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Needless to say, I was flattered and thrilled to even be in attendance at this global event. As a speaker on the “Disaster Relief: Improving the Legal Framework” panel, I shared the stage with David Fisher, global coordinator of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Disaster Law Program, and Satoru Nishikawa, director-general for audit of the Japan Water Agency. Though many in attendance were familiar with the flooding and displacement of thousands of south Louisiana citizens, I recounted our legal system’s experience in the aftermath of the hurricanes and the crucial steps taken to both recover from the damage and implement preventative measures for future disasters.

In New Orleans alone, 80 percent of the city was flooded. Not only were courthouses closed, but 8,979 of the 17,047 active lawyers in Louisiana were displaced from their homes and offices for months. The Louisiana State Bar Association, too, was displaced and forced to relocate for the first time in its history — luckily our Lafayette firm had enough space to accommodate the LSBA’s more than 20 staff members for about two months after the storm. After retrieving its servers, equipment and files from New Orleans, the LSBA staff and board quickly responded to the needs of its members and the public — now dispersed across the state.

photo
David Fisher, global coordinator of the International Federation of
Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Disaster Law Program in
Geneva, Switzerland; Frank Neuner of the Lafayette-based law firm
NeunerPate; Satoro Nishitawa, director-general for audit of the Japan
Water Agency in Tokyo, Japan; and the moderator, Dean David Caron, Kings
College of Law in London, England.


With more than 52 percent of lawyers displaced and clients unable to contact them, the LSBA became a central resource for the legal community. “The website of the Louisiana State Bar Association quickly became a leading portal for information on Katrina’s impact on lawyers, law firms and clients,” said Robert Ambrogi, editor of the Bulls Eye Newsletter. “It included message boards, court orders, disaster training manuals and comprehensive links to legal, government and private resources.”  

The LSBA also responded directly to the needs of displaced clients through a disaster legal assistance hotline and an interactive website portal where lawyers published their temporary contact information. The dedicated LSBA staff tirelessly worked from its transient office to support and assist its affected members and their clients.

Legal communities across the country also contributed to the recovery effort through an outpouring of funds and resources. Three funds were created (Disaster Relief, Legal Assistance Call Center, Legal Infrastructure Recovery and Rebuilding) to manage the more than $1 million received to provide a wide variety of assistance and to implement preemptive programs for future storms. For example, the Call Center — which is still operational today — helped more than 20,000 affected citizens and served as a central intake for the Louisiana legal aid network.

In addition to the impact on the civil justice system, the criminal justice system was also significantly affected. More than 8,500 inmates of the Orleans Parish prison were stranded for several days and eventually evacuated and relocated across the state. I even heard a story about a tourist from New Zealand who made the mistake of being arrested in the French Quarter the Saturday before Katrina hit. Missing for 30 days, he was finally located — much to his family’s relief — in a prison in a different parish.

In response to the criminal justice system’s problems exposed by the storm waters, the state Legislature in 2007 created the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which provides a system for managing, regulating and training lawyers involved in the defense of indigent individuals. As chair of the LPDB, I can tell you that we have made significant progress following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but much remains to be done.

The legal community found itself woefully unprepared to handle the aftermath of these two massive storms. Many members of the legal system now have disaster preparedness plans in place. We know the importance of back-ups, alternative means of communication and pre-existing networks of assistance. If you do not have a preparedness plan in place, visit LSBA.org to access its handbook “Disaster Planning: It’s Not Just for Hurricanes. Are you Ready?”

As we sit in the midst of hurricane season, we hope to never again face similar crises, but if we do, we are better prepared because of our experiences. We are able to share our story with the world, provide crucial lessons to prevent others from encountering similar problems, and present a model for others to rebuild stronger and improved legal systems and communities following a disaster.

Frank X. Neuner Jr. is a founding and managing partner of NeunerPate, a law firm headquartered in Lafayette with offices in Metairie and New Orleans. A graduate of LSU Law, he has 37 years of experience in defense litigation. As chair of the Louisiana Public Defender Board, he is spearheading the effort to provide demand-driven stable funding for the indigent. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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