After the Storm

Local law firms pitched in to help Houston recover from Harvey’s wallop

Published in 2018 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2018

Last summer, the Texas legal community came together with many Houstonians to revive the city battered by Hurricane Harvey, which slammed into southeast Texas in August 2017. Then—as if it had found a place to nest—it stalled, dumping as much as 60 inches of rain even while the gusts subsided. 

“We’ve been through many hurricanes,” says Houston business litigator Robin Gibbs of Gibbs & Bruns, “but we’ve never had one that just sat on us. It filled this area up like a bathtub.” 

Gibbs & Bruns decided immediately to help fund disaster-relief services. “This community has been wonderful to us for 40 years,” Gibbs says. “This was an opportunity to give back.”

Other firms pitched in as well. Personal injury attorney Vuk Vujasinovic, co-founder of VB Attorneys in Houston, helped gut homes for rebuilding. Lauren Waddell, a family law attorney at Houston’s Fullenweider Wilhite, collected clothes for women professionals who had lost entire wardrobes. And in Dallas, Michael Lyons’ firm, Deans & Lyons, teamed up with a client to get medical supplies to Houston residents.

 

Medical Mission

Harvey caused $125 billion in damage, severely disrupting services at many area companies—including Paragon Infusion, a client of Deans & Lyons’ that provides critical IV infusion services.

The law firm and Paragon co-own a twin-engine turboprop, which they put to work air-delivering supplies from Dallas and San Antonio to Houston. “We dropped everything,” says personal injury attorney Lyons.

The team landed at executive airports, then trucks took the meds to homes and hospitals. “Airspace had been shut down all over Houston,” Lyons says. “If not for those resources, there could have been dire consequences.” 

 

Cleanup Crew

Once waters receded to workable levels, lifelong Houstonian Vujasinovic joined a group helping with the cleanup. Wearing steel-toed boots, gloves and facemasks to protect themselves from exposed nails and filth, they ripped out waterlogged sheetrock and gutted flooded homes. “Floodwaters are particularly nasty and toxic,” Vujasinovic says. “They’re sitting around for days, sometimes weeks—and these homes were just swilling in this.”

Residents rescued photo albums and piled unsalvageable items in the yard and streets. “Their belongings were destroyed,” he says. “It’s not easy to go into a place where you have a lot of memories and just take a sledgehammer and whack it.”

VB Attorneys got calls from people hoping to recover losses from insurance companies and the federal government, and started offering informational town halls and Facebook Live sessions.

Vujasinovic now represents homeowners upstream and downstream from the breached Addicks and Barker reservoirs, built in the 1940s. The litigation aims to show that the federal government knew homes would be damaged when water levels in the reservoirs exceeded capacity. Upstream homes experienced flooding when the reservoir gates were kept shut until the water backed up into their area. Then downstream homes were flooded when the gates were opened. Nearly 20,000 homes were affected.

The large number of suits prompted Chief Judge Susan Braden at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., to identify 14 “test cases.” Vujasinovic was appointed as a lead counsel representing upstream victims. 

 

Clothing Drive

The Association of Women Attorneys sponsored a clothing drive for women professionals who had lost their work attire to flooding. The idea came from its president, Waddell: “If you’re leaving your house in the middle of the night, you’re worried about your kids, not grabbing your suits and your heels.” 

Her firm created a website, and Waddell set up a donation area in their offices. “Within a few days,” she says, “I was overwhelmed.”

Boxes poured in from lawyers as far away as North Carolina and California. The building’s 12th-floor tenant had just moved out; it became what Waddell called “The Harvey Boutique,” with one room for sorting, another filled with donated clothing racks. 

Women came at half-hour intervals and tried on outfits in makeshift dressing rooms. One Saturday, Waddell promoted an all-day event, “and there were already a dozen women waiting in the parking garage when I came in,” she says.

“There were nights where I was up there sorting by myself, and I’d think, ‘What am I doing?’” Waddell says. “Then I would meet these women, and it was all worth it. They would break down and cry and say, ‘Thank you. This means so much.’”

One woman recounted how the family dog had slipped from her daughter’s grasp as they escaped. “The dog was swept away, but the mom said, ‘We have to keep going,’” Waddell says. Luckily, a neighbor found the dog and kept it for them.

 

Legal Relief

Gibbs & Bruns always promotes pro bono work, and decided to help by supporting those with disaster-relief expertise. “In the aftermath of the catastrophe, there were a huge number of legal problems confronting citizens who knew very little about law,” says Gibbs. “They needed lawyers just like they needed places to stay.”

Gibbs identified two local agencies providing disaster-relief services, and the firm gave $150,000 to Lone Star Legal Aid, for displaced families; and $100,000 to the Houston Bar Association’s hurricane relief fund for members of the legal community. The firm also offered temporary space to Lone Star, whose offices had been destroyed.

Collectively, the efforts of these four firms—and many, many others—helped the ravaged city rebound. Lyons says his firm’s efforts were “just one tiny paragraph of a big chapter. … We’re glad to have helped out.”

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