For many the havoc of Hurricane Harvey is just beginning to unfold, and our brothers and sisters of the bar face unique challenges. Even for the most prepared there will be unforeseen circumstances. For those firms affected there are a number of resources available, and for those looking to help, plenty of opportunities.
If your firm has been affected by Hurricane Harvey, what can you do?
- Visit the American Bar Association’s Resources for Lawyers and Law Firms from the Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness.
- Many courts in and around the Houston are still closed. You can check here for Federal Courts and here for municipal courts. Send notices to clients regarding the delays and be prepared to reschedule.
- Connect remotely. Hopefully you have the ability to access files online. If not at least attempt to log into e-mails and begin to put together anything you need emergently.
- The Houston Bar Association is working to connect displaced attorneys with those who have available office space. If you are a member you can contact them at (713) 759-1133.
- Call FEMA at (800) 621-FEMA (3362) to learn more about forms of disaster relief assistance for business owners. There will be local centers set-up to assist, but call immediately. Check in with your insurance company as soon as possible. You want to be the “squeaky wheel” and in line early.
- Call the IRS hotline at (866) 562-5227 for special help with disaster-related tax issues. They will waive the fee if you need a copy of past tax returns or you can obtain a line item lists of the most recent tax return by calling (800) 908-9946 to request a free transcript. The IRS has also produced this helpful workbook to help you determine business losses in the event of a disaster.
- Ask your payroll service providers if they have a fiduciary bond in place. The bond could protect you as an employer in the event of default by the payroll service provider.
- Connect with clients and keep them informed regarding how the hurricane may affect their matter or at least when you will be able to follow-up with more information.
- Learn about state, federal and private support available. The U.S. Small Business Administration is making disaster loans as low as 3.3% to businesses in and around the Houston area that have been impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Visit their website or they can be reached at (800) 695-2955.
- Do not reenter the property until it is declared safe and then work to secure the premises and valuables as best you can. If you can safely shut off gas and power to prevent any additional damage, do so. Start taking pictures and video immediately before you move anything to record the damage, and make sure to note the date and time.
- Ask for help. What do you need today? What will you need in the immediate future? What will you need down the road? Ask for it all now. Use social media to connect with long lost friends or even strangers and ask them for their support.
- Make a plan. Write it down. Take one step at a time. Do only what you are able to do and if possible assign tasks. Take time to grieve and accept what you are going through. Contact the Texas Lawyer’s Assistance Program for additional assistance.
If you want to help with disaster relief efforts, what can you do?
- If you are an attorney licensed in Texas, the State Bar of Texas has a legal hotline to assist low-income Texans. You can volunteer here. Out of State Attorneys can e-mail Scott Lachman to express interest in volunteering. Visit the ABA Disaster Legal Services Program for additional opportunities and resources.
- Donate $$$: The American Red Cross is the preferred emergency response agency for the U.S. government, but there are innumerable rebuttable organizations collecting funds. You can text the word HARVEY to 90999 to make a $10 donation to the Red Cross. The City of Houston has also established the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund and you can make a donation here. Here are some other funds. Share you monthly discretionary cash. Organize a fundraiser. Put a collection jar in the office break room. Survivors will need money for a while to come. Whatever you can give will be well spent (just make sure you research and confirm that you’re donating to reputable organizations).
- Give blood. You can find the nearest donation center by entering your zip code here. The fatality toll has been comparatively low at 14 reported to date, compared to somewhere around 1,836 fatalities following Hurricane Katrina. However, there is an absolute need for blood so we can hopefully keep these statistics in check.
- If you are a local firm who was lucky enough to have not been shut down due to the storm, open your doors to you neighbors. Let them use some space, power, paper and your WiFi.
- Donate requested physical goods. Organize a drive to replace computers, printers, copiers or other equipment and supplies which may have been lost. Consider adopting a firm and help them get back on their feet.
- If you are close or willing to travel (once it is recommended), do so; it will take a lot of man power to clean up after the disaster. If you can give employees time off to help or make it a team building effort. Volunteers can sign up for trips to the affected area through a number of organizations.
How can you prepare your firm for a disaster?
- Develop an emergency plan and review and update it annually. Think through the most likely scenarios for your specific area and then consider how they could be applied in more unlikely situations. Make sure your employees know the plan, to whom they should report and where to go. Know where the nearest evacuation routes are, and what emergency resources exist so that you can direct employees accordingly. Also maintain lists of local contacts for schools and other authorities to keep everyone as informed as possible.
- Document your valuables. Keep receipts and take videos and photos of your business property. Keep these in a safe place outside of the office; ideally have a digital back-up in the cloud. The IRS has created this workbook which can be incredibly helpful if you keep it up-to-date.
- Use electronic records. When the option exists to receive financial statements and other records electronically opt in; then make sure you save secure copies. For paper copies you receive, make sure to scan and save them. Besides just keeping a copy in the cloud you should save a back-up on a removeable drive that is stored somewhere besides your office in a waterproof and fireproof container.
- Create a disaster supply kit. This should include at least: non-perishable food, clothing in sealed packaging, drinking water, a battery operated communication device, spare batteries, matches, candles, blankets and ideally a back-up generator.
- Obtain insurance in advance and understand your policy.
- Put files in the cloud and make sure you have backups. Being able to connect virtually in the event of a disaster is of paramount importance.
- BONUS: Review the SBA’s Guide for Emergency Preparedness
Disclaimer: This article is merely for informational purposes. These lists are not exhaustive and only include recommendations. None of these organizations have been personally vetted. Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice or forms an attorney-client relationship.