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Post-Katrina relocation issues challenging businesses

By the time Hurricane Katrina was churning slowly through Northeast Mississippi, the executive committee at Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, in Jackson was scrambling to communicate with the firm’s 13 lawyers and 12 staff members who work in the law firm’s Gulfport office.

“Communication was our biggest hurdle,” said Steve Rosenblatt, chairman of Butler Snow’s executive committee and a member of the law firm’s financial services group. “It tested our innovation and ingenuity and technology to get folks connected as quickly as we could.”

Within two days of the Category Four storm, Butler Snow had established a new e-mail server “so that those able to access the Internet could communicate with us,” explained Rosenblatt. The law firm rounded up the Gulf Coast crew and relocated them to Central and North Mississippi.

“We had room for everyone in Jackson and made accommodations here to house them, but some folks had family in Memphis and it was easier for them to move to Olive Branch and enroll their children in public schools,” said Lance Bonner, executive director of Butler Snow. “We tried to balance the personal and professional side. Through technology, the option of distance working gave us a lot of flexibility where to place people.”

Phillip Carpenter, CCIM, of Carpenter Properties said many professional firms temporarily located displaced workers to existing offices rather than leasing additional space.

“I got the sense that people calling for office space could’ve taken it anywhere in the U.S., as long as there was a phone and Internet connection,” he said. “I’m assuming a lot of national companies with a presence on the Gulf Coast shrunk back into existing surplus space somewhere else.”

Parkway Properties leased 20,000 square feet of office space to four firms, three from New Orleans. FEMA and Entergy signed leases for office space in the former WorldCom building in Clinton.

“Those are the only significant deals I’ve heard about,” said Carpenter. “In fact, I was talking to a commercial Realtor in Baton Rouge and asked him what he was doing since there was no space to lease. He said, ‘You wouldn’t believe it, but some people who asked for space are now trying to get me to unravel the deal.’ Power had been restored to some office buildings in downtown New Orleans and they wanted to get back there to work. They preferred to commute two hours daily while their families remained in Baton Rouge with the kids in school.”

Fortunately for Butler Snow, the Gulf Coast office, located in Suite 204 of the Whitney Bank Building in Gulfport, was not damaged by the storm and re-opened September 23.

“The first week after the hurricane, two lawyers doing business transaction work stayed on the Coast, one working from home, another working temporary from a client’s office,” said Rosenblatt. “We had two or three in Memphis and the rest in Jackson. Now that the Gulfport office is open again, we’re back to 85%. Three or four are still working from here because of their home situation — one lawyer has been called to active duty in the National Guard and his pregnant wife is on bed rest — but there’s no reason they couldn’t all be back on the Gulf Coast.”

The 140-attorney firm also housed other displaced attorneys, including Beau Rivage counsel from Biloxi and the Consul General of Japan and his staff from New Orleans, and displaced clients, including a real estate client from New Orleans who worked from the law firm’s Memphis office for two weeks.

“Everyone was helping others as much as possible,” said Rosenblatt. “There was an awful lot of that going on in the legal profession.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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