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VOL. 125 | NO. 114 | Monday, June 14, 2010

After the Flood

Nashville firms get back to normal

MARIA BURNHAM | Special to The Daily News

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Traffic moves on streets May 10 in Nashville that were flooded the previous week when the Cumberland River, right, flooded.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

For two weeks after the floodwaters in Nashville receded, lawyers from Bass, Berry & Sims PLC worked from makeshift offices all over the city.

Their own offices, on the 23rd through 29th floors of a Downtown building two blocks from the swollen Cumberland River, sustained no damage. However, the parking garage – which is also where the electrical and HVAC systems were located – flooded and stayed that way for days. Without power, none of the building’s tenants could return.

The firm was lucky, though, said Keith Simmons, Bass, Berry & Sims’ managing partner. Other businesses, including Regions Bank and RJ Young Co., opened their doors to the office’s 176 attorneys, offering space, copying and faxing services and emotional support.

“The outpouring of support and genuine offers of concern from the Nashville legal community and the business community at large were just overwhelming,” Simmons said. “It reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of the people of Nashville.”

For two days, beginning May 1, more than 13 inches of rain pounded away at the city, causing the Cumberland to swell and muddy waters to pour over its banks into the city’s historic downtown.

In Nashville, 10 people drowned and thousands were evacuated. At least 2,000 homes were destroyed or damaged with losses estimated at more than $1.5 billion.

Bass, Berry & Sims was one of the hardest hit law firms in Nashville. The firm, which also has offices in Memphis and Knoxville, saw its Nashville operation effectively shut down for 36 hours, with lawyers unable to access e-mail or any other system. Finally it was able to get its system back online with a portable generator, and lawyers resumed work remotely via laptops.

According to the Tennessee Bar Association, five firms reported closures due to the storm. In addition to Bass, Berry & Sims was Memphis-based Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC. The others – Davies, Humphreys, Horton & Reese; Miller & Martin; and Neal & Harwell – do not.

Baker Donelson’s office, Downtown at the corner of Third and Commerce streets, didn’t see any flooding, but the power to that part of the city was down for nearly four days, said Scott Carey, managing shareholder of the firm’s Nashville office.

The firm had made the decision ahead of the outage to take its Nashville server down and switch to its emergency system, which meant lawyers were able to access their e-mail and documents throughout the outage. Lawyers used their laptops and Blackberries to work from home, Carey said.

Some of the Nashville lawyers, who were working cases with their counterparts in the firm’s other locations – including Memphis, Knoxville and Birmingham, Ala. – moved to those sites temporarily.

The firm, which also has offices in New Orleans, Jackson, Miss., and Washington, has learned from disasters that affected each of those areas, and has in place a specific disaster plan that continues to evolve, Carey said.

As a result, clients were able to reach a live person if they called the Nashville office during the outage. The direct line rang over to a secretary in Memphis who would relay the message to the Nashville people via their home or cell phones.

“We were only able to do that because we have this plan in place that dictates exactly what we do,” Carey said. “The hardest part was accounting for the 180 people who work in the Nashville office and making sure they and their families were safe. Several people had to be evacuated from their homes. Some of them have pretty significant damage to their homes. I spent a lot of time reaching out and making sure all our people were OK.”

But even for the firms like Spicer Rudstrom – whose Nashville office was not directly affected by flooding or the resulting power outages – the disaster still had a trickle-down impact on business.

“It did slow down all the legal happenings in Davidson County,” said Weldon Patterson, managing partner for Spicer Rudstrom. Work slowed because the offices of co-counsels and opposing counsels were closed. Courts in Cheatham, Davidson and Hickman counties were closed for about a week. Depositions were canceled; court dates got postponed.

“It would be impossible to quantify that,” Patterson said. “How do you know how many phone calls you missed?”

For Nashville’s law firms, things are pretty much back to pre-flood status and cases related to the floods are starting to trickle in. But not all businesses in town have recovered so quickly.

“From a city standpoint, Nashville is open for business,” Carey said. “But there are people who are still hurting.” There are parts of the city, particularly Antioch and Bellevue, that are still struggling, he said. And there are small businesses all over the city that are hurting – that need to see their customers return.

“For us, life is back to normal,” Carey said. “But we need to remember and help the folks who are still struggling.”

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