Lawyers on the storm

Federal courthouses remain closed without a firm reopening date

By Phillip Bantz
BridgeTower Media Newswires
 
RALEIGH — A North Carolina native who transplanted to the U.S. Virgin Islands and hung out a shingle nearly a decade ago is preparing to return to his island home and law office in the aftermath of back-to-back hurricanes that have crippled the local court system.

Russell Pate, a University of North Carolina alum, said he hunkered down inside his law office on St. Thomas and rode out Irma as the Category 5 storm pummeled the island last month, leaving three residents dead in its wake.

“People ask what a Category 5 hurricane looks like. It looks like a basement wall,” Pate said. “It’s just so powerful that you’re cowering in the safest place in the building.”

Pate’s law office, a stone-walled building from the 1700s, survived Irma relatively unscathed, but he has colleagues whose offices were ravaged.

He said the U.S. Virgin Islands Superior Court also lost portions of its roof and had blown out windows — despite having hurricane shutters in place. Still, he heard that some court staffers whose homes were destroyed or unreachable had been living inside the battered courthouse.

After Irma, Pate said he emerged from his law office to find virtually every tree that was still standing on the island stripped of leaves, a surreal scene in a place that is perpetually lush and green. Utility lines were wiped out and cellphone reception was virtually nonexistent.

About two weeks later, as Maria, a second Category 5 hurricane, roared toward the islands, Pate said he boarded a private relief boat and headed to St. Croix, where he battened down the hatches once again, this time in a house.

“It’s kind of like being in a six-hour tornado,” he said. “You hear the winds howling and screeching.”

In the immediate aftermath of the storms, a 24-hour curfew was implemented but later eased to allow residents outside for a few hours at a time during the late morning and afternoon, according to Pate.

“It was only recently that you have a day that you could actually get into your office and work, but most people still don’t have power and internet,” he said. He added that the cellphone network is at about 20 percent of what it was before the storms.

“You’ll see 100 people gathered at a certain area because that’s the only spot where you can get reception,” Pate said.

Islands’ Chief District Judge Wilma Lewis wrote in an order closing the federal courthouses on St. Thomas and St. Croix that “numerous” law offices were shuttered following Irma and Maria and that prisoners at the federal prison in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, where nearly all Virgin Islands inmates are held, had been evacuated to the mainland.

The federal courthouses remain closed without a firm reopening date, Pate said, while the local courts have issued administrative orders extending deadlines by more than a month. But Pate added that some of the islands’ criminal defense lawyers are reportedly helping the courts to clear through a backlog of arraignments.

“The local court is trying to at least limp by,” he said.

Days after Maria hit, Pate and his wife, with their cat in tow, were lucky enough to secure seats on a charter plane that a wealthy St. Croix resident had hired to take a tennis coach back to the states. He’s now staying in North Carolina, but expects to return to St. Thomas by November.

“The islands are resilient. People ask in the Virgin Islands why it’s such a tight knit community, and it’s because we understand that these natural disasters happen and it takes everybody coming together as a family,” he said. “In the next month or two a lot of us will return to rebuild. I’m coming back. We’ve got to get the courts going again.”
 

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