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Coast attorneys recovering; much rebuilding remains to be done

It’s been two years since Hurricane Katrina and some attorneys on the Gulf Coast are not back to normal professionally or personally. They’re rebuilding their own lives while helping to rebuild the lives of clients. They’re also not taking normal office amenities — working telephones, computers, fax machines, elevators — for granted.

Although Jack Denton’s Biloxi law practice is back to pre-Katrina levels, he’s still living in rooms over his Howard Avenue office. The office had roof and window damage but fared better than the young attorney’s home.

“I drove back from Oxford the day after the storm and brought supplies,” he recalls. “There was nothing left of my neighborhood, just empty lots and debris piles. Right after the storm, I had a real fear that my practice would not recover. It was more of a reaction as I looked around and thought there was no one here for a practice.”

With no power or water in Biloxi, Denton drove back to Oxford where he could have access to phones, e-mail and other necessary equipment. He soon returned to the Coast and worked with the Mississippi Bar’s disaster relief office in Ocean Springs.

“That was my opportunity to get back down here, and after I got power at my office, I was able to house lawyers working with disaster relief,” he says. “That got me going again.”

For the past two years, Denton, 33, has been working almost exclusively with people whose insurance claims were denied. He feels he’s had a tremendous amount of success with Katrina litigation. Most notably, was the favorable result returned in the Broussard case versus State Farm.

“That verdict allowed us to wrap up all our litigation cases,” he says. “It opened the door to negotiations to resolve other cases. This closure allows my clients to recover and move along with their lives.”

Next on tap, Denton would like to continue working on insurance cases and insurance policy issues, nationally and regionally.

In Hancock County, Randy Santa Cruz still has a huge work load as he deals with litigation cases. The Bay St. Louis attorney is now with the Merlin Law Group, a firm based in Tampa, Fla. He had his own practice before Katrina but completely lost his office and home.

‘We lost everything’

“It was pretty devastating. We lost everything,” he says. “I saw a huge need for insurance litigation and joined the Merlin Group.”

While his wife, Charlotte, and three children lived in Fairhope, Ala., Santa Cruz renovated another building he owned in Bay St. Louis that was not too badly damaged. Sleeping on a cot there, he got the office up and running three months after the storm and commuted to Fairhope each weekend. The family was able to return to Bay St. Louis in August 2006.

“Are things normal? In terms of an office and being able to do things technologically — in that respect we’re back to normal,” he says. “Now we have phones, Internet, a place to work with services, but I have a number of clients who left and aren’t coming back. The majority who stayed are not back in their homes. Most lost everything.”

Santa Cruz says some of his clients have bought other homes and some are elderly folks who don’t want to wait around to rebuild so they’ve moved away.

Dealing with the backlog

“The biggest issue in getting these cases moved along is the backlog in court,” he says. “I want to help people reach resolution with their claims.”

The downtown Gulfport office of the Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada firm has physically recovered in a makeshift fashion, say attorneys Ann Bowden-Hollis and John Harral. It’s located on the second floor of the Whitney Bank building and escaped major damage.

“However, the first floor of the bank was completely destroyed,” Harral says. “We were without power and water for many weeks. Fortunately, we have a Jackson office, and 48 hours after the storm was over we had a team here that loaded all of our office equipment and files in trucks and moved everything to Jackson.”

Although the Gulfport office reopened when power was restored, the building’s first floor is still being repaired. “That means we and our clients have to use the back alley entrance, a very unattractive way into our office, and the back stairs instead of an elevator,” he adds. “It also means that there are times when the jack hammers are so loud we have to stop a deposition or a meeting until the racket stops.”

Harral notes that the Whitney Building remains surrounded by the storm’s destruction after two years. “There are buildings so badly damaged they could fall on cars or pedestrians,” he says. “There are still buildings around us that have not been cleaned up from the storm and are full of debris, mold and collapsed walls and roofs. We are making progress in downtown, but decades of rebuilding are ahead of us.”

Bowden-Hollis spent 15 months living with her husband in a hotel room, moving back into their home in early December 2006. “We still have a punch list of things to do, but we found out we are made of strong fiber,” she says. “I’ve been amazed at how people have adapted to the circumstances.”

While most of her clients are back in their businesses, not all of them are back in their homes. For many, litigation cases continue.

The Butler Snow firm is doing a great deal of GO Zone work. “Hardly a day has gone by since the legislation was enacted that I haven’t had at least one call about the GO Zone incentives,” Harral says. “Our firm has been involved in a huge amount of GO Zone bond work, and we have fielded hundreds of calls regarding the depreciation incentive.”

He continues that the GO Zone covers two-thirds of the state, and while the incentives are significant, they often have not been enough to overcome the financial challenges facing developments on the Coast.

“In other areas of the state that aren’t facing the challenges present on the Coast, these incentives are lagniappe and wonderful, but down here we face a long, hard rebuilding and recovery period,” Harral adds. “Congress was great to extend the depreciation incentive for the southern five counties, but I wouldn’t be surprised if another extension will be necessary.”

He sees the pressing issues of rebuilding in the face of unprecedented obstacles that include infrastructure, insurance availability and premiums, construction and land costs.

“The financial challenges are so great they are killing what would otherwise be viable projects,” he says. “We are seeing a great deal of activity in residential building since we have tens of thousands of homes to replace and of course casinos and condominiums are going great guns in some areas, but in the downtown areas and in all areas of west Harrison County and Hancock County, the financial challenges are just still too overwhelming.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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