Picking up the pieces

Issue July 2011 By Bill Archambeault

Andrea R. Reid didn't get the chance to run for her building's basement.

When a tornado ripped through Reid & Gaudet Law Group LLP's downtown Springfield office at 969 Main St., all she could do was dive under her desk and wait out the chaos of swirling winds, shattered windows and flying debris.

After tornadoes unleashed their fury on Western and Central Massachusetts June 1, three people were dead and around 300 hospitalized, with $175 million in property damage claims. Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency after the storm. After President Barack Obama approved disaster relief funding, Patrick signed a bill that included $15 million to help residents and businesses recover from the damage.

"All hell just broke loose"

When the twister passed, it was hard for Reid to fathom what had happened. It was, she said, an unreal scene: The three-story office building no longer had a third floor, and part of its second floor was ripped apart. Her car, parked nearby in an open-air lot, was crushed by the storm, which lasted just about a minute.

"The third floor of the building we occupied was completely gone," Reid realized after getting up and wandering outside. "It was just a couple of bricks left hanging. The second floor was semi-gone. The first floor walls and ceiling were still there."

Reid, who left the office without her computer hard drive or any of her clients' files, was shocked again when she returned two days later and found that the city had razed her crippled building and others nearby.

"They demolished the building -- in fact, the entire city block," she said. "It was so surreal I had to take pictures of it. It was just surreal. You just had to capture the moment."

There had been no warning that the building would be leveled, she said, so she hadn't thought to try and retrieve any of her files. In some cases, clients had copies of their files, and some documents were on file at court. But she spent days figuring out what she had and what she had to do. Three weeks after the building was torn down, she still hadn't been reassured that any of her clients' sensitive information had been securely disposed of amid the chunks of rubble and broken glass that were hauled away. Now she's planning to invest in scanning equipment to keep backup copies of her files -- just in case there's another freak disaster.

The thought of tornadoes or some other force of nature striking downtown Springfield again may be hard to imagine, but no one thought that their businesses would be upended the way they were on June 1, either.

Reid said her partner, Lynn Gaudet, who works out of the firm's Leominster office, had called a little after 4 p.m. to warn her of the possibility that tornadoes might strike the area. Reid, who is on the city's emergency contact list, said she hadn't received any other warnings and thought it must have been a Springfield in the Midwest that was in danger, not taking the warning seriously.

About 10 or 15 minutes after Gaudet's call, Reid noticed the wind started picking up and the door flew open, so she went to lock it. That's when it struck.

"All hell just broke loose. I didn't have any time to do anything but dive under the desk. It was like the world was ending. We just completely got slammed. Suddenly I had no other choice than to dive for cover. There was no way I even had time to think of (going to the basement). You cannot believe the force of the wind, the noise, the destruction. When you look at the level of destruction, you say, 'There's no way that could have happened in a minute, a minute and a half, tops.'"

She was still huddled under the desk when the wind and noise died down, leaving behind a thick cloud of dust. "That's when it clicked for me that I was still alive," she said. "I got out from under desk. I remember I was shaking a lot. There was debris and trees and buildings littering the streets. Everyone in proximity was crawling out of whatever shelter they took. At that point, I started to freak out and started panicking."

Cell phone service was out, so she wandered back into the building and called Gaudet, whose warning she had dismissed.

"Now," Reid said, "we have this running joke that 'You never listen to me.'"

Lawyers helping lawyers

Hampden County Bar Association President Thomas A. Kenefick III estimated that 25 to 30 lawyers in the area were affected by the tornado, but said it would probably take a month or more to know the extent of the impact.

"It's been difficult. You really can't minimize the damage the tornado did," he said. "It's been something that's just unprecedented. It certainly left its mark. It's been a numbing experience to many."

A number of attorneys have needed help, including legal help outside of their areas of expertise, Kenefick said, particularly real estate law. Lawyers whose offices were damaged suddenly found themselves needing legal advice about obtaining lease abatements and site engineer evaluation reports from their landlords.

A number of Hampden County Bar members have used the association's offices to conduct business while they're displaced, he said. Similarly, the MBA has made space at its office at 73 State St. in Springfield - which was spared from damage - available to attorneys in need.

The HCBA and MBA also jointly offered a Dial-A-Lawyer program on June 22 (see story on page 7) in which residents affected by the tornadoes could call in and receive free legal advice.

"Everything was lost"

Dale E. Bass, a solo criminal defense attorney, noticed the weather turning nasty and decided to head home early, around 4 o'clock.

"About a half hour before the tornado hit, it was pouring rain, hailing, raining sideways. I said 'I'm going to leave before it gets any worse.' I just thought it was a terrible rainstorm."

When he arrived home in Wilbraham, his family was worried by the tornado warnings in the area. One missed their house by about a mile, he said. They lost power, so he didn't know how bad things were right away.

Bass went to his office the next day and found the building had been heavily damaged. The city had condemned the building the night the tornado struck and started tearing it down the next day. Police, who thought Bass might be looting the building, stopped him. He explained that his office was inside, but they still wouldn't let him inside because officials had deemed it unsafe.

"Everything was lost," he said. Bass owned the commercial condominium in his building, which included an architect and an advertising firm, as well as living space. A meeting with the condo owners was scheduled, and there is talk of rebuilding, he said, but that might take a year. In the meantime, a friend had office space available that Bass is using now, along with a new computer, scanner, printer and fax.

Bass was able to salvage some files, including pre-trial motions, from CD-ROMs he had at home, and he was able to get other files for three murder cases he's handling.

"Basically, I'm up and running," Bass said. "I went to the clerk's office and got the forms. The DA's office was kind enough to give me the entire case file on CD-ROM. The DA's office was exceptional."

The experience has convinced him of the value of paperless files.

"I'm going completely electronic," he said. "I'm not going to make that mistake again."

"Come on, this is Springfield, Mass."

Karen M. Duffy, a solo practitioner, hasn't had as easy a time recovering. Her office, on the second floor of a three-story building at 55 State St., sustained damage on the upper floors.

"It suffered serious roof damage and possible structural damage, broken windows," Duffy said. The top floor suffered the worst damage, but on the second floor, doors no longer shut properly, baseboards no longer matched up with the floor, and sinkholes appeared. "There were rumors they were going to condemn our building, so I drove down to the office with some boxes so I could salvage the files I could."

She was able to retrieve her computer's hard drive and three plastic bins of probate files, but none of her juvenile files. Those will be more easily replaceable, and, she said, "I could only take so much."

Duffy wasn't willing to go into the building again because of the damage, and she's been frustrated by a lack of communication with her landlord about the building and its condition.

"Limboland really stinks. It makes it difficult to do anything. I'm not comfortable going back to that space," she said. "It's been very unsettling not getting any answers."

Several weeks after the tornado, Duffy has been working from home and occasionally been using the offices of colleagues and the MBA to meet with clients. "People have been really super helpful, and most lawyers and clients have been really understanding," she said. She was even allowed to submit a financial statement in handwriting because, at the time, she didn't have any office equipment with which to produce it.

She was eager to find new office space, even if it means paying double rent until her current lease ends in October. She was hoping to find new office space by the end of June.

When that happens, Duffy is also planning on changing the way she runs her business, in terms of handling information. She was backing up her data before, but now plans to use remote storage, as well.

"When we do in fact move, I'm definitely having data stored at an offsite location," she said. "I was doing data backup in the event of a computer crash, not in the event that I'd never be able to get back into my building again. (Offsite backup storage)
is expensive, but the alternative is worse."

She's also looking into scanning her paper files, though she's not sure how feasible it will be for a small operation like hers. "I just never thought of that before," she said. "I just never thought about that."

Duffy also never thought a tornado would hit downtown Springfield. Shortly before the storm hit, someone in her office mentioned the tornado warnings.

"I kind of chuckled at her and said, 'Come on, this is Springfield, Mass.' Tornadoes don't hit here." Then she hummed the Wicked Witch theme from The Wizard of Oz to punctuate her point.

Her husband called with warnings, also. Eventually, she and her mother, who was helping her with billing, got in their cars to drive home. As they turned onto Columbus Avenue, she could see debris swirling above the freeway. Her mother, who was a short distance ahead of her, had made it ahead of the winds, but Duffy decided she might be safer in her building's basement, and turned around.

"I said, 'Those clouds are kind of creepy, they're weaving in and out of each other.'"

When she got back to State Street, she had trouble opening her car door because of the intense wind pressure, and she bruised her shoulder getting out. She managed to get into the basement along with other tenants and a few other people, and waited out the assault.

After it was over, the most serious injuries were cuts and scratches from the flying debris. She drove several people home who'd been stranded. Cars were crushed by debris and had shattered windows. One officemate's driver-side window had been smashed by debris still lying on the seat, which she said would have impaled him had he been in his car at the time.

Even with a ruined office, dented car and bruised shoulder, Duffy knew it could have been much worse.

"I was very fortunate," she said.