Reilly Morse at the spot of his old law office. Photo by Hugh Williams.
Magazine Feature: With his salvaged personal computer, an outpouring of generosity from others and plenty of worries, solo attorney Reilly Morse surveys the damage inflicted on his hometown and his law practice by Hurricane Katrina. Lawdragon editor John Ryan and photographer Hugh Williams spent a few days with the exhausted but still affable environmental and public interest attorney six weeks after the hurricane.
"What's the word today?"
That's the question from Reilly Morse as he rolls down the window of his Volkswagen Passat and slows the car to a stop. Greeting him is a Gulfport police officer, who is guarding this stretch of the Mississippi Coast.
Morse shows the officer his ID, explaining that his law office used to be closer to the water. So was his mom's condo.
"The word?" the officer says, waving him through. "Same as all the days before."
Morse heads south toward the water, entering the apocalyptic scenery created six weeks earlier by Hurricane Katrina. Barbed wire and national guardsmen in Humvees patrol the other entry points to the coast. There was some looting here early on, but nothing like New Orleans. The area is calm.
Around the Gulf Coast, Morse is a well-known environmental lawyer with clients like the Sierra Club. He has fought commercial and residential development over the years, but Morse liked this coastal mix of offices, residences, restaurants and bars. Professionals could finish work and head to Ruby Tuesday for a burger and a beer. A canopy of oak trees lined the streets.
Virtually all of that is destroyed now, except for the most stubborn of oaks.
Morse hooks left on 16th Street, about a half mile from the water. A few groups of contractors are scattered around the area, clearing the mess.
"I just had my 30th high school reunion over there," Morse says, pointing to where a bar used to be.
He gets out of the car and steps over oak branches to a large concrete slab. This is part of the outline of his former office, a converted residence and historic home. Morse, a solo practitioner, shared the space with its owners, who also are lawyers and friends.
Nothing but shattered wood and scattered bricks. A chair submerged in mud. A computer monitor sticking up. Deeper in, where the ground is lower, water has collected, forming filthy ponds smelling of shit that soak Morse's old file cabinets.
Morse has returned several times. The day after the storm, he came with waders to pull up the cabinets and see if the case files could be saved. No good. That's when it really smelled bad. It was 100 degrees outside; the air was thick.
"It was just unbelievably nasty," Morse says.
"Used to be a great view of the water," he adds, turning to the coast. With the gallows humor that is pervasive in these parts, he chuckles. "I guess it's a better view now."
Six weeks after the disaster, both Gulfport - and Morse - are defined by a "can't go on, must go on" split personality. The place was ravaged, but restaurants and stores are open. Mississippi politicos are already putting together a commission to tackle the rebuilding of the coast. As for Morse, he has clients but no files. His secretary is up in Jackson and isn't coming back. The courts are generous with postponements of court dates, but it's time to start rebuilding the practice. Mostly, Morse needs to make some money.
On this Monday morning, starting over seems insurmountable. There are so many distractions. Morse first has to check on his mother's condo just a few streets away. The unit could be saved, he thinks, but the owners may just clear the whole complex, given the damage in other sections.
"Gotta make sure things aren't getting stolen," he says.
He spent three days here after the storm, clearing out the condo and ripping out the sheet rock to prevent mold from forming. Morse's brother and mom rode out Katrina right here. They had to go upstairs and then to the room farthest from the shore as the flood waters rose. Morse doesn't like to think about what could have happened, but they are OK and living in Florida.
Morse's new office is just up the road from the old one. It's in Court Programs Inc., a private probation company Morse got to know during his days as a municipal court judge in Gulfport. The connection helped him land the new space, and he feels lucky to have it.
A bigger reason Morse feels lucky is that his house, farther away from the shore, was not damaged.
"I'll trade an office for a house any day," he says.
Morse already looks exhausted as he sits down at his desk and turns on his computer. He isn't sleeping much; he wakes up at four in the morning feeling anxious. His present office is about a third the size of the old one.
He didn't have insurance for the old office, and all he got out before the storm was his two personal computers and portable printer. He's looking at losses of $25,000 to $40,000. For more than a month, no income has been coming in, and he has to provide for a wife and two daughters. Morse, who is 47, needs to file for bankruptcy. He'll be talking to a bankruptcy attorney this week. He also just needs money to get by. He's gotten a few loans from friends and needs more.
"I'm pretty much screwed," he says.
Morse has been searching for a salaried position. He has a lead with the office of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, where he would be doing civil litigation. He likes Hood and could see himself doing that. Only the job is in Jackson, the state capital about 160 miles north, and that makes it not so desirable.
He also has interviewed with Martha Bergmark, who runs the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit that has been involved in the legal side of hurricane relief work. Bergmark wants to open a Gulf Coast office for her Jackson-based group, and Morse is a solid candidate to run it. He wants this job badly. He expects to hear from Bergmark today.
Morse, a 1983 graduate of the University of Mississippi Law School, is a third-generation Gulfport attorney, but he's not like his father or grandfather. Both were pro-business, conservative Republican lawyers. Morse studied to become a painter before law school, a path his father didn't much care for. In private practice he became a lefty tree-hugger with a substantial anti-development environmental practice, further antagonizing his father.
But Morse always appreciated that his father paid for his art education, including a year in France. And when he began his legal career, Morse quickly learned how much the legal community respected his father. They were able to joke about their differences later in life. His father died three years ago.
As his wife, Christina, likes to say, Morse is "just different." He's a staunch liberal from a conservative family who isn't afraid to fight commercial development or political cronyism. What really makes him special, she believes, is that he takes on the smaller clients no one wants, like a social misfit embroiled in a land or family dispute. Morse's clients often become his friends.
His friendly, easygoing personality is apparent as he describes his work, which, when not in the present crisis mode, he loves.
A third of Morse's practice is environmental work for the Sierra Club and local conservancy groups. That part of the practice is geared toward stopping commercial and residential development that threatens natural resources and poor communities. Another third of his practice is general litigation and small business disputes. The final third is family law, including probate and divorce work.
Morse has been a lawyer for 20 years. The stuff he's accumulated - case files, desks, pictures, memorabilia, books, phones, office equipment - has been washed away. Morse needs to rebuild each file and get in touch with clients. Being a one-man shop really hurts now. Law firms might have back-up files, and they'd have some paralegals to do the grunt work. Morse will have to do it all by himself.
He plans to get documents from three sources: the original court file, opposing counsel and clients. Opposing lawyers and clients may have copies of documents, including correspondence not in the court files, but some items are lost for good, such as the notes Morse kept for his cases.
Morse sees a few lessons here. Clients should always ask for and keep copies of the documents and exhibits of their cases. Counties should adopt electronic filing systems so that scanned versions of all documents are stored somewhere. Most federal judicial districts do this; Morse is in good shape on the few federal cases he has.
Morse had just bought a scanner and was starting to back up his files when Katrina came along. That scanner is gone now.
"Scanning is the correct, ultimate backup for lawyers," he says. "It's what they need to do. If I ever get this practice going again, it'll be the second step I take after opening the mail."
Over the weekend, Morse skipped out on a seminar called "Rebuilding Your Practice After Disaster Strikes," which was organized by various state bars and legal groups and held at the Gulfport courthouse. He'll get the seminar's written materials from friends who attended. Bar organizations have posted online and made available countless articles, handbooks, pamphlets and more on post-disaster tips for lawyers to pick through.
Instead, a client and friend gave him the keys to her condo in Orange Beach, Ala. - a chance to get away for a few days. He went there with his wife and their daughter, Alex, a sophomore in high school. Morse's older daughter, Meghan, is in college and studying abroad in Limerick, Ireland. She left for Ireland a few weeks after the storm.
The Orange Beach trip was a nice break, and it also gave Morse a signature post-Katrina story. When the Morses arrived, the manager of the complex told them they couldn't stay there because the unit was being used by an adjuster with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency that has been mightily unpopular with Katrina survivors. The Morses got another room and discovered that the unit rented by FEMA was empty. The adjuster was actually in New York.
Morse tells the anecdote throughout the day.
The courthouse in Gulfport, which is part of Harrison County, was not damaged. It houses the circuit clerk's office and the chancery clerk's office. Cases involving divorce, adoption, estates and property disputes fall under the jurisdiction of the chancery court, which has its own administration, while the other civil actions fall under the circuit courts. The chancery courts are allowing attorneys to take case files off site for photocopying, which is what Morse has planned for the day.
On the drive to the courthouse, Morse gazes out toward the coast. He says that contractors hired by the state tore down a six-mile strip of trees, not realizing that the healthy trees still standing were supposed to be preserved. A painter of landscapes, Morse loved these trees. He chokes up when talking about them.
"It's very painful to think about," he says. "They're not replaceable." With a population of 70,000, Gulfport is the second largest city in Mississippi, behind Jackson. But the legal community is tight knit, and Morse knows all the court clerks and administrators. This trip to the courthouse is the first time he's seen many of them since the storm.
A few people Morse speaks with have lost their homes. Morse nods his head and continues the theme that carries him through the days: We were lucky. The house survived. We sleep in our beds. Alex has a place to come home and do her homework.
Morse also pays a quick visit to the chambers of Carter Bise, one of the chancery judges he knows. Bise's house was severely damaged by sewage that washed in with the storm. He, too, has trouble sleeping. He's trying to focus on writing opinions.
"You have to have tunnel vision," he says.
Restaurants are reflective of life in Gulfport in early October. Lil Ray's, a popular lunch spot, is up and running again but very hectic because of the short staff. With so many employees gone, "Help Wanted" signs are posted in most places of business.
Morse enjoys a PoBoy with Tom Teel, a name partner at Perry, Murr, Teel & Koenenn, the firm that shared the old office space with Morse. Teel's firm owned the building. The firm also found new space at Court Programs Inc.
Teel doesn't know if his firm will get any insurance money for the office because the firm didn't have flood insurance. They hope to prove that the damage was caused by severe winds, for which they did have coverage, instead of flooding.
Eating PoBoys on the benches of Lil Ray's is the high life compared to the early days of no power, no phones and that dreadful feeling of not knowing who and what survived. After three days, Christina and the girls left Gulfport to stay at a relative's place in Montgomery, Ala. Morse stayed back with the family's three dogs. On the second night alone, he heard a woman screaming outside. He guessed it may have come from a trailer park about a block away. There were no police around. At that point, he decided that he should probably find his shotgun and keep it in his home. He never needed it.
Christina came back before the kids, and this was one of the hardest parts of the post-storm period, Morse says. It was the first time they sat down to discuss the family's dire financial situation, but the survival of their home at least has allowed Morse to spend his energy rebuilding his practice. The Morses even got their power back quicker than most, within about a week and half after the storm.
Since that first week, the Morses have put up a number of people whose homes were damaged or destroyed, including Christina's mother and her mother's friend, who have since found new places to stay. A married couple continues to stay with the Morses, as do the couple's two dogs and pet lizard.
"They're a cool couple," Morse says.
Monday afternoon is tedious. Morse stands in his cramped office photocopying case files. It takes a half hour just to get through one. He wants to hire a legal secretary to help but can't afford one just yet.
Morse feels lucky to have saved his personal computers from the office. He also saved a photograph of himself as a law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Michael Sullivan taken in 1985. In the picture, which is hanging in his new office, Morse and the other clerks are standing behind the justices. He doesn't know why he grabbed this one piece of memorabilia as opposed to any other left behind, like his law diploma.
Morse has a printer/copier that an old drinking buddy from law school bought and had delivered to his new office. Another law school friend gave him a cash loan, which Morse has no real chance of paying back.
"I'm going to send him a painting," he says.
The law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal has been sending legal supplies to the area, and Morse got a laptop from the firm. The Mississippi State Bar, says Morse, has not helped out with grants or new equipment.
As he chats and photocopies documents, Morse sometimes forgets if the document in his hands has been copied. He'll think of his bankruptcy, a lawyer he needs to call, the need to order new business cards, the affidavit his mom must complete for the condo complex, responding to the e-mails pouring in.
"OK, I'm just going to be shameless," he says, dialing the Mississippi Center for Justice.
Bergmark's not in. He leaves a message inquiring about the job prospects.
Morse has a diagnosis for his condition. He calls it "the Katrina shuffle" or "mold in the brain."
The e-mail he got from his daughter Meghan earlier in the day reminds Morse of a story, and he laughs. After the storm, with the Limerick trip fast approaching, Meghan still hadn't received her passport. She went to Houston, where she was told that it already had been mailed out of the New Orleans office. Morse called the office of his U.S. Senator, Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, for help. Lott's people intervened, and Meghan came home with a passport. Of course, when she got back, the other passport arrived in the mail.
The funnier part of the story is the conservative Lott coming through for the Morse family.
"I've said some not very nice things about him over a considerable period of time, as an environmental and public interest lawyer," Morse says. "Meghan and I both sat down that very day and wrote Trent Lott 'Thank You' letters."
On Tuesday morning, Morse is preparing to go to the courthouse in Biloxi, which also is part of Harrison County. He has a few case files to check out. He also wants to take visiting journalists to the barge casinos, which Katrina wrecked and pushed hundreds of yards onto the shore.
"That's where you really get a sense of the power of the storm," he says.
As a major source of tax revenues and jobs, casinos are a huge part of the Mississippi economy and Gulf Coast life in general. The state legislature legalized dockside gambling in 1990, and since then about a dozen casinos, built on giant barges, have sprung up off the shore of Biloxi. Katrina wiped them out.
Weeks later, the legislature convened a special session to pass a new law allowing the casinos to be rebuilt on land, as long as they are within 800 feet of water. Gov. Haley Barbour immediately signed the provision.
These casinos play a big role in Morse's practice. His environmental work has focused on preventing the casinos from expanding in ways that threaten estuaries and other natural assets. He has handled such disputes for a number of local community groups like the Gulf Islands Conservancy. He's waged similar battles over development plans for new condominiums and for an oil rig off the coast.
Overall, Morse appreciates the financial benefits the casinos have brought to the region. The broader issue for Morse and his clients is what their role will be in the reconstruction efforts. They want to be sure environmental interests are considered by Barbour's commission, The Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, Renewal.
"We don't want the hurricane to be used as an excuse to completely alter the face of the community," Morse says.
Earlier in the morning, as a way to organize his thoughts and to "get in the tent" on the reconstruction, he typed up a PowerPoint presentation that outlines environmental principles for rebuilding the coast. He also spoke to Gerald Blessy, a Harrison County representative on Barbour's commission, about being invited to some of the upcoming forums attended by architects and developers.
Bergmark's office called back late Monday. She is still interested in hiring him but does not have the funding yet. It's not the worst news possible, but not good news, either. On the positive side, another generous check arrived from a friend.
"That will help me keep things going," Morse says.
Heading north from the water, Courthouse Boulevard connects Morse's old office to his new one and Lil Ray's, eventually hitting Pass Road, the main east-west thoroughfare. The Morses live just a bit north of Pass.
Pass is jammed with traffic. Morse says it was a nightmare in the week after the storm, when the stoplights were out and all the intersections became four-way stops. Pass Road also is home to Los Tres Amigos, a massive Mexican restaurant, where Morse meets his wife for an early lunch before heading off to Biloxi. The place is packed but seems to have the staff to handle the crowd.
At times, Morse leans his head against the wall by the table. Christina sits next to him and seems considerably better rested. But she's working hard, too, busy with work made possible by the storm. She serves as an agent of sorts for contractors, driving around and looking for houses that need debris cleared away. If she lands a customer, she gets a portion of the fee paid to the contractors.
"I'm a subcontractor," Christina says with a smile. "What the hell is that about?"
Christina also is a Gulfport native, but she lived in New York for five years to become a ballet dancer. It's clear why the two artistic types found each other in Gulfport after their faraway adventures, Morse's in France, Christina's in New York.
She and her husband discuss a web of somehow connected topics: Working with the contractors ... the psychological depression that set in after the storm ... not sleeping ... the couple that's living with them ... a doctor whose pager goes off at 4 in the morning, and his wife.
"You all must think we have ADD or something," Christina says.
"No, KDD," Morse chimes in.
The Biloxi courthouse is smaller than Gulfport's. The clerk's office has a trio of women behind the desk who are happy to see Morse and get him the files he wants. The eldest teasingly refers to Morse as "a tree hugger."
"You better not fight the casinos, now," she says, with a booming laugh.
Again, stories are traded. The older woman's house was damaged badly. She got a lot of stuff out of the house beforehand, including minor things, like her husband's suits.
But somehow - and this is killing her - she forgot to save a trunk of family treasures, including her daughters' christening gowns and various items her mother crocheted.
"How the heck could I do that?"
The drive from the courthouse to the Biloxi's shore is, as Morse predicted, depressing. In some areas, all of the homes are completely leveled. Many other homes are so badly damaged that the residents have moved all of the contents to the lawns.
Morse parks by a large field with a path to a beachfront area, where a short walk leads to the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O'Keefe Museum, named for legendary ceramist George Ohr and benefactor Jerry O'Keefe. The hurricane pushed three massive barges from the water onto the shore, and one crushed an uncompleted extension of the museum. The barges also destroyed a historic mansion, a popular hotel and other structures in the area.
Morse takes some pictures, which he will post on a blog he keeps on his Website.
But he has other things on his mind and wants to get going. He has to talk to the bankruptcy attorney, and he has a client meeting. He's also just plain worried.
Part of it is keeping his family afloat in the months ahead. But he also worries about the region in general. FEMA's ineptitude was staggering, but he also witnessed a tremendous outpouring of support from neighboring communities and the country as a whole.
Morse fears that this charity and attention created artificial feelings of well being, and now that initial period is over. The letdown is here, and reality is setting in about the enormity of the challenge. That's where Morse is now. He's happy he came to see the casinos.
"This makes rebuilding a law practice look like a piece of cake."