When Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans in August 2005, it left a path of destruction that killed more than 1,500 people and destroyed more than 200,000 homes. As New Orleans slowly recovers, the area’s legal professionals are finding opportunities and satisfaction in helping to rebuild a great American city. Below, three of New Orleans’ top attorneys share their experiences with Katrina and how it has changed both their practices and their lives.
Jump-Starting the City
From his office on the 27th floor of a high-rise tower in New Orleans, it’s hard to see the depth of damage to the city below, but Leopold Sher knows firsthand what a monster hurricane can do to a town. When the infamous 17th Street Canal collapsed in Lakeview, Lake Pontchartrain poured six feet of water into his home. Like many New Orleans residents, Sher’s life was turned upside down.
Partners and associates from Sher’s 42-person real estate and business litigation firm, Sher, Garner, Cahill, Richter, Klein & Hilbert, temporarily moved to Baton Rouge and began working on legal issues for their clients––universities, hospitals, banks and more––almost immediately after the storm, despite their personal losses.
Many of the firm’s clients offer basic services, such as medical care, and Sher knew he had to get them back on their feet quickly. “We worked day and night to assess where they were and to get them into a position where they could resume operations of some sort. We needed to help jump-start the city and our clients,” says Sher.
Since Katrina, the firm has seen a huge boom in its real estate practice. Sher has represented numerous lenders that had loans out on properties that were completely destroyed. With tenants absent and out of business for months after the storm, many landlords found themselves without the income to pay the lenders. Sher describes it as a huge puzzle where nothing can be put together until the most important piece—funding—comes into the picture.
“There’s the landlord, the tenant and the lender. All of their interests are different. The lender needs to be paid its principal and interest, the landlord needs to be paid its rent, and the tenant, if it’s out of business, needs some sort of means to restore its operations,” he explains.
It’s not all bad news, though. Sher expresses optimism in the local real estate market and forecasts a commercial real estate boom in New Orleans five years from now. With a housing shortage looming as a major crisis for the city, developers from both inside and outside the region are looking at high-rise apartments and condos. And with so much rebuilding yet to be done, not even trends in the national economy and real estate market will greatly affect the region, Sher says.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Sher has seen the city through good times and bad. Even considering his family’s own personal losses, he remains hopeful about the city’s future––despite the tragedy, Katrina has also created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild a great American city from the ground up.
“Those people who are sticking it out, participating, lending a hand and being part of the solution are going to reap huge financial, psychological and emotional rewards,” says Sher. “[Years from now], we’re going to look back and recognize great personal satisfaction from the things we’ve done.”
A Dysfunctional, Limping System
For Laurie White, criminal law is a lot like boxing—two competitors stand in the ring, shake hands and then try to bludgeon each other. They act like it doesn’t hurt, someone eventually goes down and, in the end, they make up.
“Only we don’t wear gloves,” says White, of Laurie A. White & Associates in New Orleans.
For a criminal defense lawyer, New Orleans is unfortunately a great place to practice––over the past two decades, the city has consistently ranked among the most violent cities in the nation. And although New Orleans has lost more than half of its population since the hurricane, crime rates remain on par with their pre-Katrina levels.
Now, White says, the city’s under-funded criminal justice system has fallen into even further disrepair. For years, critics had called the New Orleans criminal justice system a “revolving door,” where criminals arrested for violent crimes were back on the streets the next day. But Katrina brought another, almost opposite, injustice––thousands of inmates were left sitting in jail for extended periods of time awaiting trial and representation.
“Everything post-Katrina takes five more steps. Everything is more difficult. It takes longer,” says White. “The system, which could be termed dysfunctional beforehand, is now extremely dysfunctional and limping.”
The frustration in dealing with that system has taken its toll on White. A New Orleans resident of 20 years, White expresses a great love for her city, but says that she doesn’t know if she can stay. After the storm, White and her husband bought a second home in Houston, and while she expresses hope for New Orleans, she admits she is “reluctantly optimistic.”
“I know that to love New Orleans, I have to get away from it [sometimes] because it gets so frustrating. It just doesn’t function like other normal American cities,” says White. “But whether I’m here full time or not, I’m still committed to the city.”
The Difference Between Repair and Restoration
While the flooding of New Orleans may have been a shock to much of the nation, many of the city’s residents had been aware of the danger for more than two decades. Thanks to oil exploration and the development of shipping channels, Louisiana’s coast has been shrinking for generations. Like many residents, Allan Kanner has been vocal in his criticisms of the governmental preparations for possible hurricanes.
“Had they sent an extra hundred million [years ago] or had the Corps of Engineers do a good job with the levees, they would have saved billions of dollars. It was perfectly foreseeable, which makes it so much more upsetting,” he says.
Kanner has little faith in the government’s support for the rebuilding effort––but he says it gives the city’s legal community an excellent opportunity to shine. Kanner’s firm, Kanner & Whiteley, which handles toxic torts, consumer fraud, environmental and natural resource damages law, and insurance and commercial litigation, has been engulfed in a whirlwind of post-hurricane activity. And while thousands of businesses have been put out of operation, thousands more have opened up in their place in search of unique business opportunities caused by the storm’s devastation.
“I think it’s actually a great time to be here [for business],” says Kanner. “It’s a little Wild West and sort of a frontier but there’s a lot of work to be done and anyone who wants to do it can do very well.”
Kanner believes that prompt adjustments of insurance claims have been a second disaster—many people and companies have taken small settlements just to get back up and running. Kanner’s own insurance firm even tried to cancel his policy, but after some legal maneuvering, he was able to renew his policy at a hefty premium.
Many of his clients were denied claims or offered menial amounts that didn’t begin to cover their damages. Kanner saved those clients big money by assessing their damages and offering a realistic figure on which to base their losses.
“In one case, we had a client [who was] offered $129,000 but we got them $1.2 million. There’s another client that was offered nothing and we got them $4.5 million. There are huge disparities between what they were offering, if anything, and what their actual losses were,” said Kanner, calling the settlements “the difference between repair and restoration.”
Kanner, a licensed pilot, evacuated his family to Dallas when the storm struck, enrolled his children in school there and flew back and forth from there to New Orleans. He lost the roof on his home and suffered a substantial amount in damages, but managed to reopen his firm on September 22 and has been working since.
“One of the truths of New Orleans right after the storm was that so many people suffered so badly, it was hard to feel bad for yourself. I had an office [to go back to]. It was not looted, it was basically functional and most of our people came back,” says Kanner. “I feel blessed.”