Disaster Duty

Gulfport lawyer Teri Wyly looks after the land, come hurricane or oily water

Published in 2015 Mid-South Super Lawyers — December 2015

On the way home from a Louisiana Bar Association convention 33 years ago, Teri Wyly’s car overheated—serendipitously, in front of a real estate office in the coastal Mississippi town of Bay St. Louis. She and her husband, both lawyers, were newly married and living in New Orleans. They immediately fell in love with Bay St. Louis and signed the contract for their first house that same day.

Since then, Wyly, an environmental lawyer at Balch & Bingham’s Gulfport office, has helped keep it—and the surrounding area—on the map in the wake of two disasters: Hurricane Katrina and BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Wyly was out of town when Katrina hit; her husband, Jim “Bubba,” and their youngest son decamped to north Louisiana. “We thought [our] house was gone, based on the news reports,” she says. But it turned out the home, built in 1904, was still standing, if uninhabitable.

At first, they moved in with Bubba’s parents outside of Tallulah, Louisiana, commuting to their firms in Jackson. “I represented an economic development group called the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission,” Wyly says. “They put their management team in double-wides and they had an extra one; and, since I was their general counsel, they said, ‘Do you want to come down here?’ because I was having to work out of the Jackson, Mississippi, office. So we moved the family into the trailer court and had a FEMA tent feeding us. … It was one of all these little Katrina communities that sprang up.” They lived there for 18 months.

After the hurricane, Wyly says, she and her colleagues at Balch & Bingham “never really stopped working, which is probably something that helped keep us all sane. There were a lot of needs for clients, how to address their recovery—we represent the state port, for example, at Gulfport. They had tremendous damage—all our [shipping] containers that were full of chickens and Hanes underwear, they had been pushed up by the water and thrown all over the town of Gulfport. So we were having to deal with that from a legal standpoint.”

She helped develop an environmental assessment that was required before homeowners could receive federal money secured by then-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

“Our little town was basically destroyed,” she says. “It’s been a 10-year recovery, but we’ve come back strong.”

The 86-day spill brought another set of problems. Tar balls washed onto the beach in front of the home where Wyly and her husband have raised their daughter and two sons. Marine life was dying; fish and oysters were also affected.

As counsel for Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality, Wyly has played a role in restoring habitats for “our critters—the shrimp the oysters, the worms,” which feed the fish. And the economy. She led the state’s legal team that this summer saw the completion of a $2.1 billion settlement for Mississippi in its case against BP. It was part of a larger settlement reached by regional trustees from all the Gulf states.

As for the shoreline and BP, Wyly says, “It’s not over. Now the hard work really begins—that’s the restoration planning for the Gulf.”

Raised in Oregon, and a graduate of Oregon State University, Wyly met her husband in England during a study-abroad program at Merton College, Oxford. He wore khakis and loafers, which she found exotic. (“They don’t grow Bubbas on the West Coast,” she says.)

Following law school, Wyly worked in Washington, D.C., for a year; then the couple married and moved to New Orleans—Bubba hails from Northern Louisiana. After moving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Wyly says she was doing mainly construction law as an associate at her current Gulfport firm (then named Eaton & Cottrell) when the senior partner “walked down the hall one day; he said, ‘You’re from California. You do bean sprouts and all that environmental law. Do you know anything about permitting landfills?’ I said, ‘Heck, no, I’ve never done any environmental law.’ It wasn’t even taught in law school at the time. This was probably in the mid-’80s. It was still new to everybody, and certainly very new to Mississippi. But Waste Management Inc. was a new client of ours, and they needed a landfill in Harrison County,” where Gulfport is located. “And so he said, ‘OK, you’re my trash lady.’ ... And literally for the next seven years, that’s all I did, was solid-waste permitting.”

“Sometimes,” she adds, “you don’t choose your practice area; the practice area chooses you.”

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