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November 2005

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Courts Continue Recovery After Katrina

The Gulf Coast continues its recovery in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As has been reported, storm damage to homes and businesses made Katrina one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history, with over one million people displaced. But, like their communities, the federal courts in the Fifth Circuit, Eastern District of Louisiana and the Southern District of Mississippi, are making a comeback.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit remains in Houston for now, working out of space shared with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

On November 1, 2005, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana reopened for business in New Orleans, over two months after Hurricane Katrina caused the mandatory evacuation of the city. Since the evacuation, Public Law 109-63 has allowed the court to receive filings and conduct proceedings from temporary offices outside its district in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, while continuing to accept filings at Houma.

"The judges of the court have been very anxious to return to New Orleans and as far as I know, we are the first court to return," said Chief Judge Helen Berrigan (E.D. La.). "We have all suffered losses, some minor, some severe, but we are committed to the city of New Orleans and the Eastern District and look forward to playing our part in rebuilding this marvelous city and community."

Along with the district court, businesses are returning to New Orleans. One of the largest providers of drug testing in New Orleans is now back in operation in the city. The Eastern District of Louisiana probation office also officially returned to New Orleans on November 1, 2005.

Jill Benoit, Chief Probation Officer for the Eastern District of Louisiana, went to Lafayette, Louisiana as New Orleans flooded. In the emergency, a cell phone list of probation officers and staff helped maintain contact. Said Benoit. "It was a tremendous relief that everyone was fine and staff and officers were anxious to come to work. We were crippled, but we weren't incapacitated."

Within the week, officers were tracking offenders, even as a number of offenders called in to self-report. With thousands of evacuees flocking to shelters, locating known sex offenders and finding alternative living arrangements for them was an immediate priority. "We tracked down sex offenders pretty quickly," said Benoit.

Desktop computers were down, and there was no access to the Judiciary's Data Communications Network, but the Administrative Office could provide a copy of the national PACTS system. "That gave us data, including addresses," said Benoit, and that was a tremendous help. We also had enough laptop and tablet personal computers with current data."

Probation offices around the country offered support for the staff members who were displaced and suffered losses—11 with total losses—as a result of Katrina, and for the staff members from the district who were scattered as far as Virginia, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas, while the district was in temporary quarters in Lafayette, Houma, and Covington, Louisiana.

In the Southern District of Mississippi, the probation office was located in an annex next to the Gulfport courthouse. The storm surge with its contaminated black water flooded the office, which is now being stripped—mildewed ceiling tiles to moldy floor—and reconstructed. Chief of Probation Gary Mann hopes they'll be back in their facilities by the end of December.

"In the meantime," said Mann, "we've established two trailers at the courthouse complex site. We have 13 or more staff squeezed into two 14 x 60-foot trailers, but it's a place to operate, and it lets our officers get out into the field. Getting back into a routine is important."

Mann estimates that the office now knows the location of approximately 90 percent of its offenders and has made provisions for the supervision of those offenders now residing outside the district.

Part of the probation office's restoration is a cooler truck parked next to the courthouse where waterlogged files are being decontaminated and dried.

"When Katrina hit, we had paperwork on 350 to 400 active files and many inactive files ready for archiving," said Mann. "All of those files have been taken into the cooler truck to stop degradation. We pull out files as needed and rely on PACTS pending the full restoration of the files."

Clerk of Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, J.T. Noblin, projects that the district court will return to the Gulfport courthouse from temporary quarters by the first of the year, with the bankruptcy offices and the U.S. Marshals Service tentatively scheduled to return in February. The courtroom floors in the Gulfport courthouse should be available for re-occupancy in April or May 2006.

"We'll continue to run full building evaluations at the Gulfport courthouse to test for mold risks and other health hazards until we're satisfied nothing is going to grow there," said Noblin.

When the court returns, they'll find the hurricane has had a devastating impact on the local bar.

"Scores of law firms had their offices destroyed," Noblin said. "They're trying to reconstruct, but there are obstacles to relocation and they lack the support the courts enjoy. Further compounding the return to business, Katrina has substantially drained the jury pool. It's a difficult time for everyone."