McGuireWoods Houston Lawyers’ Volunteer Efforts Help Hurricane Victims

September 1, 2017

As Hurricane Harvey forced Houstonians to flee their flooded homes with the few possessions they could carry, McGuireWoods lawyers and staff volunteered to help them find shelter and food and begin the long journey toward recovery.

With 26 attorneys and staff, nearly everyone in McGuireWoods’ Houston office was involved in the area’s effort to cope with what federal officials estimate will be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

The weekend the storm hit, associate Kate Semmler Cornelius and her husband, Trey, began volunteering at major shelters for evacuees set up in Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans. Texas Lawyer and Law360 wrote about her volunteer work during the week. The couple purchased diapers, blankets and other supplies and took them to the Brown Center. She worked late into the night on Aug. 29 picking up trash outside the center. On another day, she was at the NRG Stadium by 7 a.m. helping move tables and chairs and setting up kitchens for those in need.

“It’s incredible how many people were there to help,” she told Law360, describing long lines of volunteers waiting outside the Brown Center who were there to help.

On Aug. 29, partner Matt Kapinos and office managing partner Jay Hughes were helping a friend remove flood-ruined items from his home when they encountered a 65-year-old woman and an 80-year-old man whose home was severely damaged. So they shifted gears to help them with something more pressing – securing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Jay just pulled out his laptop and started a FEMA application for them,” Matt said.

Houston partner Ron Franklin, a lifelong Houstonian, also volunteered, showing up at the Houston SPCA with his SUV packed with Puppy Chow. “There’s a huge demand for puppy food because puppies can’t eat the same food as adult dogs,” he said.

Animal shelters across southeastern Texas were overwhelmed with pets separated from families as rising water from Houston’s bayous, rivers and reservoirs inundated their homes.

“The focus is on matching them up with their owners who may be in the convention center or other evacuation shelters and reuniting them,” Ron said.

The monster storm made landfall on Aug. 25, dumping more than 50 inches of rain on some parts of southeastern Texas. Harvey and its flooding was responsible for at least 47 deaths and an estimated 7,000 homes destroyed and more than 40,000 severely damaged.

As the flood waters recede, Matt said, the need for aid will only increase, and recovery will be slow. Clients in Texas will be among those facing a long and difficult road back. “If you’re working with someone in Texas, have a little patience with them,” he said. “Reach out to clients and see if they need help.”

Most McGuireWoods personnel in Houston escaped serious flood damage; one had significant damage. While the office in downtown Houston was unstaffed all week, attorneys continued serving clients from home in addition to volunteer relief work.

Associate Siobhan Ray has been putting in full days doing firm client work sandwiched around pulling four-hour shifts helping Lone Star Legal Aid assist flood victims from a makeshift cluster of tables at the Brown Center and sorting donations collected at BBVA Compass Stadium, home to the Houston Dynamo Soccer Club.

“Right now, Lone Star is addressing more immediate needs – mostly helping people replace their SNAP benefits cards [the Texas food stamp program] lost in the floods or helping people file FEMA applications,” she said. “Later on, the needs will probably shift to helping people file insurance claims, request that their landlord make repairs to rental property, or—if the rental property is no longer habitable—terminate their leases.”

Jay also is balancing volunteer work with client business, quickly pivoting from one to the other during lengthy, exhausting days. “I’m going to get some work gloves so I can do some more work on people’s houses this afternoon, but I’ve got to turn a merger agreement before I do that,” Jay said on Sept. 1.