Tin roofs were ripped from buildings and garage doors crumbled like paper, when Super Typhoon Yutu hit the Northern Mariana Islands in late October. Heavy rain and sustained winds of 180 mph left many people on the island territory without power and water.
Yutu was just one of a series of natural disasters that slammed courts around the country in 2018. Earlier in October, Category 4 Hurricanes Michael and Florence tore through the panhandle of Florida and the Carolinas.
From preparation to recovery, affected court offices implemented unique strategies, some consulting with courts affected by past natural disasters to learn how to restore court operations as quickly as possible. They made innovative use of phone apps and other technology to keep communication lines open. And court personnel in two districts, one in North Carolina and one in Florida, are mastering the logistics of physically moving their operations wholesale to new locations after their courthouses were rendered uninhabitable by extensive damage.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts’ Judiciary Emergency Response Team (JERT) aided courts in the search for temporary offices, allocating supplemental funding and helping maintain security at compromised court locations.
“We may be battered, but we’re not broken,” said Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona, of the Northern Mariana Islands, as recovery efforts from Yutu continued late into this year.
This is a summary of how courts coped with natural disasters and continued to deliver justice.
Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands
To ensure staff were prepared before the storm, Manglona arranged for employees to download and test the group messaging service for WhatsApp (a smartphone messaging app that operates outside the Judiciary’s Data Communications Network), and procured battery banks to charge mobile devices following the storm.
“This allowed us to comfort one another as the storm raged over the island as well as communicate safety and court operating information throughout the storm,” the judge said.
The courthouse in Saipan, equipped with two generators, a water purification system, showers, and a washer and dryer unit, suffered only minor damage and was a beacon for court staff without power or water at home. The morning after Yutu passed, Manglona designated the courthouse as a safe haven when enacting the court’s Continuity of Operations plan.
The doors to the courthouse reopened five days after the storm, with reduced hours to allow staff to tend to their families and homes while ensuring litigants had timely access to justice.
Panama City, Florida
The courthouse in Panama City suffered severe damage from Hurricane Michael. The air conditioning unit was blown off the roof, causing a cave-in, and the exterior walls collapsed, rendering the office building beyond repair.
Jessica J. Lyublanovits, clerk of court for the Northern District of Florida, and Stephen Pridgen, chief probation officer, organized a small team of court staff and U.S. Marshals in a salvaging mission. They climbed through the wreckage, carefully maneuvering around broken glass and debris, and using a battering ram to open doors blocked by fallen furniture to retrieve court documents.
“It was heartbreaking. Homes and business were destroyed, and downed powerlines and trees blocked the streets,” Lyublanovits said. “The entire area looked like a war zone.”
In preparation for hurricanes, the district used a dual service provider for work devices, allowing employees to jump between two different service networks in the event that cell towers were damaged by the storm. Lyublanovits said, “Our first goal is always to make sure staff are okay, helping them as much as possible, all the while doing as much as we can to get the court office back up and running.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Frank, of Panama City, continued working by making weekly trips with law clerks to hear cases at the Pensacola courthouse. Court staff in the affected area moved to other courthouses in the district. The displacement is likely to continue for at least a year until a permanent home for the court is found.
Wilmington, North Carolina
During Hurricane Florence, James Corpening, chief probation officer at the Eastern District of North Carolina, and his staff faced their own challenges.
“Keeping track of offenders during a hurricane requires a lot of preplanning with both our staff and offenders to ensure that everyone is safe and accounted for,” he said.
Corpening consulted with senior court staff in Puerto Rico, who experienced Hurricane Maria just a year ago. They stressed the importance of communication, recommending development of a phone tree so staff could easily notify supervisors of their situation.
In the days after the storm, rapid mold growth attacked the courthouse in Wilmington, making it uninhabitable. Extensive repairs are expected to take two years. Since the storm, Clerk of Court Peter A. Moore has worked to find a temporary space for staff until the permanent facility is back up and running.
The state court in New Hanover County extended a hand by temporarily opening up a courtroom so that U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert B. Jones, Jr. could continue hearing cases while the Wilmington courthouse undergoes repairs.
“The ability to continue operations remotely has been crucial during our time without a base of command,” Corpening said. “No matter how prepared you think you are for a hurricane, there will always be unforeseen obstacles you’ll have to overcome in the ongoing mission to meet the needs of your staff, the court, and the public.”