Text-Size -A+

June 2006

  • print
  • FAQs

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


Start of Hurricane Season Finds Courts Learning from Past

June 1 is the traditional start of the hurricane season. For 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts an 80 percent chance of an above-normal hurricane season —an outlook that calls for 4-5 major hurricanes. The word from NOAA is "prepare." And preparation is the byword in the Fifth Circuit, especially in the districts hit hardest by Katrina in 2005—the Eastern, Middle, and Western Districts of Louisiana, the Southern District of Mississippi—and in the Eleventh Circuit’s Southern District of Alabama and the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Florida.

After September 11, 2001,the Fifth Circuit was one of the first circuits to examine its disaster readiness. The Court of Appeals and each district court completed and tested their continuity of operations plans (COOP). Hurricane Katrina provided the ultimate test.

"With Katrina, we discovered that our worst-case scenario when planning for a natural disaster wasn’t bad enough," said Andy Crawford, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the Fifth Circuit. "We had alternate sites that weren’t useable and communications problems. We went back to our judges, to our staff—and to the AO's Judicial Emergency Planning Office Chief Bill Lehman—to find out where we needed to modify our COOP." Judge Rhesa Barksdale (5th Cir.) was tasked by Chief Judge Edith Jones (5th Cir.) with working out the revisions with Crawford.

"Our COOP served us well with Katrina," said Barksdale, "But we had a great deal of internal discussion about lessons learned. We fine-tuned those lessons and incorporated them into our COOP. Then we held training sessions."

With communications a problem post-Katrina, the circuit now has available cell phones that use a Houston area code, a simple yet effective work-around if the phone system in the New Orleans 504 area code is damaged.

Katrina scattered employees and closed courthouses for indefinite periods. Now there are a number of predetermined rally points where groups of court staff will ride out the storm. "Once the storm has passed," said Crawford, "we can return to the New Orleans facilities, assess the damage and, based on the GSA estimated time of repair, make a decision on whether or not to relocate the court." Emergency contact information for staff now includes the phone numbers where people plan to go during a storm—not just their home phones.

Phones didn't work after Katrina, but websites generally were accessible. So a commercially-based website, located on a server out of harm's way in Phoenix, Arizona, will give court unit heads a site to post notices for staff. Nearly half the staff now have laptop computers to take with them in a disaster to access the DCN remotely, along with "fly-away" kits with everything they need to set up shop in a remote location. Wallet cards have important telephone numbers and web addresses.

Finally, the federal district and appellate courts in New Orleans have established their own guidance for closing. "Previously, we waited for the City of New Orleans to evacuate, which was often at the last minute," said Crawford. "Now, when we're in the strike zone of a Category II storm or higher, and it's within 72 hours of landfall in New Orleans, we intend to close the court and evacuate from New Orleans."

The Eleventh Circuit is no stranger to hurricanes either. In August and September of 2004, three major hurricanes hit Florida. In 2005, Katrina closed courts in the circuit's Southern District of Alabama. Now the courts are gearing up for another season.

"We try to involve as many people as possible in our COOP planning," said Chief Deputy Clerk Steven M. Larimore in the Southern District of Florida. "All the court’s sections have active, updated COOP Operation Action plans that are kept online and also offsite as paper copies." The district plans to conduct table top exercises on the COOP with senior managers, other court units, and the U.S. Marshals Service in early July.

Redundancies will be built-in by the district. "For example, following a storm," said Larimore, "if they have no other means of contacting the court, employees will be able to leave their status on our Internet site, or if that's down, they will be able to send an e-mail to an external e-mail account that we can monitor and retrieve messages."

The court is meticulous about backing up data. Files and records are backed-up nightly and tapes stored off-site. There are redundant computer servers. Replaced yet functional computer equipment is stored in divisional offices for use by storm-displaced staff. Staff have "drive away" kits with everything they’ll need to take care of essential functions for 30 to 60 days, should a division be shut down.

A new wrinkle on the court's telephone system was added this year that will let the court track staff scattered in a storm. An 800-number just for employees will deliver a message on the court’s status, then allow employees to post their own status message. Staff also are issued laminated wallet cards with important phone numbers and, in an idea borrowed from the Middle District of Florida—refrigerator magnets with emergency numbers.

To fine-tune their own COOP, the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida will participate in a training exercise with the district court, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), among other agencies. The bankruptcy court's COOP changed dramatically this year, when the court implemented the Case Management/Electronic Case Files system, according to Jose A. Rodriguez, the court’s director of Administrative Services.

"It adds a backup system that we didn’t have before," said Rodriguez. "Before a hurricane strikes, we'll request the fail-over to the Replication Center, well outside the hurricane strike zone. Attorneys can continue to file because they’ll be redirected to the alternate site server. After the hurricane, the Replication Center will overnight a tape with our database back to us and we will restore it to our CM/ECF server. Granted it is more complicated than it sounds, but it is an additional layer of protection."

Courts' vulnerable automation systems have a resource in the AO. The AO can provide disaster recovery e-mail servers, CM/ECF case management services and external COOP web servers for the courts, in addition to being able to provide new servers for nationally-supported applications within a short time frame.

"Once we have the potential land fall projections," said Neal Dillard, chief of the AO's Wide Area Network Management Branch, "we contact the courts for their building closure plans, points of contact, and their expected contingency plans for relocation. It's critical that we know when they are turning off their building networks so we do not expend efforts restoring the site." According to Dillard, it’s a matter of communication.

"Know what is covered nationally. Determine what is only covered locally. And then communicate, communicate, communicate," he said.

Sheryl Loesch, clerk of court in the Middle District of Florida, and Andy Coomes, courthouse project coordinator, have taken that advice to heart. Satellite phones have been added for divisional office managers, the chief judge and the clerk. A secure site on a public website is available for staff to log-on and leave a status message. "It's a way for us to track employees after a storm." said Loesch, "It's also a way for staff to let us know what their needs are." Court staff who telecommute already have VPN access at home, so working from home is possible if the courthouse is closed, and Coomes is working with the GSA and the USMS to identify relocation sites other than court sites, where business can continue. In the planning stage is a server, to be located inland at Ocala, for instantaneous mirroring of all court files. With this replication service, no files would be lost and all would remain accessible.

William McCool, clerk of court for the Northern District of Florida, makes sure his district updates their COOP annually.

"This year, we've added generator capacity for emergency power so our telecommunications closets will also have emergency power. We're also updating our COOP with information specific to a possible influenza pandemic" he said. Like the Southern District of Florida, his district has backup plans for their CM/ECF system and e-mail programs. They’ve also moved the servers with the court’s financial accounting and jury management systems to Tallahassee where they are less vulnerable.

McCool commended the AO's responsiveness following the 2004 hurricanes and Katrina. Bill Lehman’s JEPO team at the AO is compiling the lessons learned from the hurricane so that courts are even better prepared.

"The steps courts are taking now," said Lehman, "to develop relationships with local emergency responders, compile lists of contact phone numbers, improve communications, back up systems and train personnel are all part of preparing for and communicating during a disaster. A good COOP makes it easier for a court to return to normal operations."