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Helping Houston

Tuesday, October 17, 2017   (0 Comments)
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By: Valerie A. Danner, Managing Editor, Legal Management

It’s been described as a 1-in-1,000-year flood. Hurricane Harvey washed away much in its path. But left behind was a community lifted by generosity and support — and determination to rebuild.

ALA member Candace K. Childress, SHRM-CP, has worn many hats over the years as Office Administrator at Blank Rome LLP in Houston. But recently, just like many in the Houston area, she’s found herself taking on new roles in the office that she never quite imagined.

The morning of our conversation found her jotting down clothing and shoe sizes for donations. Ten of the 100 employees of Blank Rome’s Houston office were directly impacted when Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc through Southeast Texas — and didn’t seem to want to leave. Today, Candace, who also serves as a Region 4 Representative, is heading the effort at the office to round up items for distribution to their affected employees.

As we are talking, she receives an email noting that the Harris County Courthouse can’t conduct business until repairs are made: the criminal court’s jury assembly room is steeped in 11 feet of water; the elevators aren’t fully working in the civil court building. Later that day, the attorneys are holding a meeting, not about the business of law but about the business of rebuilding. They’ve prepared a PowerPoint presentation that details flood insurance (or lack thereof), how to apply for FEMA assistance, and tips for working with contractors. It also includes information on replacing your driver’s license, birth certificate and other vital documents that may have washed away. Candace notes that some colleagues in Florida have requested the presentation, as they, too, grapple with the cleanup after Hurricane Irma.

It’s both surreal and comforting to Candace. “I’ve watched natural disasters happening, and it’s one thing to look at it on TV and feel so sorry for the people affected — but it’s exponentially worse when you’re living it. You just kick into survival mode,” she says. She didn’t see her husband or one of her sons for two days. Both are with the Houston Police Department and were working 24-hour days to aid in the rescue efforts. She counts herself lucky, though, as her home didn’t sustain flood damage.

It’s now been more than a month since Hurricane Harvey devastated Southeast Texas. The amount of water is staggering: The Washington Post puts Harvey’s total rainfall at 33 trillion gallons of water after it first made landfall. Jeff Lindner, a Meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District, tweeted that 1 trillion gallons of rainfall fell in Harris County (which includes Houston) over four days. The National Weather Service called the event “unprecedented” and had to add a new color to their maps to represent the rain totals — light purple now reflects areas with 30 inches or more of rainfall. Overhead shots of the region look as if the Mississippi River cut a path through the nation’s fourth largest metropolis.

While the daily coverage has largely disappeared from our newsfeeds, those directly affected still feel the impact. It’s not a process that will be measured in days or even weeks.

But when Mother Nature unleashes her most ferocious efforts, another formidable force is also unleashed — the kindness of human nature.

“That’s been the most fascinating and best thing that’s happened out of this. Everyone is helping everyone,” Candace says. She says everyone at her firm — like so many others in in the area — are joining in to assist in the cleanup and recovery. “From top to bottom, everyone is helping. There is no hierarchy.”

Embraced by the ALA Community

Even before Harvey dissipated and moved out of Texas, ALA members were looking for ways to help. It’s happened again with Hurricane Irma. ALA President Gary T. Swisher II, CLM, is Chief Administrative Officer with Clark Partington in Pensacola, Florida. As that hurricane battered his state in September, he received messages from members looking to help. “The efforts our members make to support each other in times like these — it’s one of the things that make me most proud of my ALA membership. We aren’t just there for each other professionally — we want to help when our colleagues face personal challenges, too.”

The support of members looking to help doesn’t surprise Chris J. O’Sullivan, CLM, at all.

“When a big catastrophe happens, people just pull together. The ALA community cares a lot about their members, their law firms and their people; that’s the strength of the ALA,” says Chris, who is the Chief Financial Officer and Firm Administrator at Gesmer Updegrove, LLP, and President of the Boston Chapter.

Coincidentally, he was also the Chapter President during Hurricane Katrina and had organized a fundraising challenge in the wake of that storm 12 years ago. Remembering how generous ALA members were then, he knew the same would be true post-Harvey. After discussing it with the Boston Chapter’s Board, they started the same challenge to help Houstonians — each chapter would be encouraged to donate $5 per member. “For me, what’s been nice about this whole thing is that it’s a good reminder that anyone could have started it. It just has to get going and then people pile on the donations.”

To date, 58 chapters have raised more than $25,000 to aid the Houston area. (See a complete and regularly updated list of those chapters here.) ALA headquarters also donated $3,500 to the effort.

“It’s been phenomenal,” says Candace. “I can’t tell you how touching it is.”

And it’s not just the donations that have helped. Valerie C. Hayes, PHR, SHRM-CP, the Office and Human Resources Manager with McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Houston and Dallas, says she was touched by the outpouring of messages from ALA members. “I just want to personally thank each and every chapter for keeping Houston in your thoughts and prayers. Many of you also personally checked on me and other Houston Chapter members offering help and support," says Valerie. "The level of emotional support provided by our ALA friends has been awe-inspiring. We are extremely fortunate to be a part of such an extraordinary group of legal professionals.”

Starting Over

If there are any members who have the unfortunate distinction of relating to what Houstonians are going through, it’s those who lived through Hurricane Katrina.

Ray Lightell, CLM, CPA, Chief Operating Officer with Galloway Johnson Tompkins Burr & Smith, APLC, remembers how ALA members from all over were there for them as they began the recovery process.

“You really didn’t know what to do,” he recalls about the early days post-Katrina. He lost his entire house. “To describe it simply, the life you knew was over — you had to start all over again. You’re living in a hotel or motel. The barbershop you went to, the dry cleaners, the grocery store, the Starbucks — all are gone.”

Remembering how much ALA members lifted his city up in Katrina’s wake, he knew he wanted to get help to Houston members as quickly as possible. When Katrina hit, he recalls how they didn’t have immediate access to cash — banks weren’t immune to the hurricane’s destruction. “People need money in their pockets. They need to know they can go to a store and pay for something and not worry about reaching their credit limit.” He knew he wanted to do something a bit different that got money straight into the members’ hands as quickly as possible.

So on August 29 — which just so happened to be the 12th anniversary of Katrina — as Ray was driving to work, he decided to start a GoFundMe campaign to help ALA Houston members. He approached the New Orleans Chapter with the idea, and they approved the campaign. As of today, it has amassed $13,510 in donations. The money was used to purchase gift cards.

Candace says that several ALA Houston members lost everything in the flooding. She says the gift cards from the New Orleans Chapter will be distributed directly to those members.

“What I have been so pleased about is that there’s been this enormous pulling together within our Association,” says James L. Cornell III, Executive Director at Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, PC, in Austin. As Region 4 Director for nearly three years, he knows the Houston members well. “We all talk about one of the things we value most about our ALA membership — the networking and relationships. This is just a wonderful extension into the personal lives of our fellow members. It’s other members caring about the impact on people’s lives — their ability to earn money and to take care of their families. I’m moved seeing so many people contribute.”

Finding a New Normal

One thing Ray suggests is to try to establish some semblance of a routine as quickly as possible. That’s where work can help. “It’s very emotional; people are traumatized, people need a sense of purpose. You don’t have a house, but at least you know you can go to the office in the morning. You may not have any clothes, but they’ll let you come in with your shorts and flip-flops. One of the better things that happens is going back to work. It’s the only normal thing you know. Get back to people you spend time with, some sort of a routine, and continue to help others.”

That’s where the support from the ALA community is instrumental. After Katrina, Ray’s office was able to get up and running within 15 days after the storm, operating in another city using office furniture and equipment donated by ALA members from the Mile High Chapter (Denver).
After her office closed for a week and a half, Candace was relieved when it reopened the Tuesday after Labor Day. A sense of normalcy, however small, was beginning to creep back in.

The first order of business that day was to gather employees and just talk. Some had 9 feet of water in their houses. Some were rescued by boat. And others were feeling a sense of survivor’s guilt — grateful that they hadn’t suffered much damage, but remorseful that their friends were experiencing such anguish when they were largely spared. “Survivor guilt is real and it’s normal,” Candace says.

Right now, Houston is still in the cleanup phase. But each stack of debris being gutted from houses represents pieces of people’s lives. Pieces of the first home they’d saved up to buy. Pictures of their grandparents’ wedding. Priceless keepsakes from the birth of a child. It’s an emotional toll — that place where you take comfort, that nest of security is suddenly gone.
“When you pack up to move, you can go through things, look at them one last time and decide to toss them. In this case, you don’t have that option,” Candace says. She notes one of her friends had to part with a beloved grand piano that the water destroyed. Many are grappling with that now. (Candace says her friend’s husband cut off the pedals from the piano and made it into a shadowbox, so they were able to keep a piece of a cherished possession with them.)

And that seems to sum up the overall outlook there — they are working through this together, determined to rebuild and continue helping — not just each other, but others affected by catastrophes as well. Candace wants to encourage ALA members to remember their fellow members affected by all the recent disasters.

While monetary donations are needed for the foreseeable future to aid in the rebuilding effort, Candace says something just as valuable is needed for the long haul — patience.

“People react to catastrophes in different ways. Be patient with colleagues and continue to support people. When I would get an email or a prayer or a virtual hug, it meant so much — I felt those. It’s not always the tangible things that mean the most; it’s the kindness that comes out from people that mean so much,” Candace says.

James agrees with the sentiment and sees it as another piece that keeps ALA members so closely knit. It’s why he was so pleased to see the organic nature of the Boston Chapter’s challenge. “It was done without prompting or coordination. They just came to help and said here’s what we’re doing and started. I’m blown away by everyone’s generosity and care and enormously proud of the chapters coming together to do that. The wonderful byproducts of difficult situations like this are the love, kindness, bravery, courage and gratitude shown by those involved.”

“It’s what the ALA is all about,” Chris adds. “Sometimes you just need to be reminded of that, that we are one big community. We can not only reach out to a Boston member, but I can reach out to any member. This was just another reminder for me. When one hurts, we all hurt. People were in need, we were able to help in some way and bring light to it.”

About the Author:
Valerie A. Danner is Managing Editor of Legal Management. 


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