By Lt. j.g. David Nordlinger, Region Legal Service Office Southeast
Hurricane season 2017 tested the entire Region Legal Service Office Southeast (RLSO SE) team. Due to RLSO SE’s geographical size, several hurricanes have made their mark on the area, but RLSO SE personnel banded together to overcome the challenges.
As hurricane Harvey whipped up on the gulf coast of Texas, the RLSO SE Corpus Christi team of Lt. Cmdr. Cheryl Ausband, Lt. Ann Oakes, Lt. Michael Johnson, Legalman Chief James Hills, Legalman 2nd Class Kimberly Ellis, and Legalman 2nd Class Tylice McKenzie had to evacuate within a day of receiving notice. With Harvey’s eye on track to roll over Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, personal safety was the first priority. Legal issues quickly followed the storm. The entire RLSO SE command supported the team, with Lt. Cmdr. Davin Rieke checking in daily and every Commander Navy Region Southeast (CNRSE) staff judge advocate reaching out to assist. While support was always welcome, Johnson was able to tap into his Defense Support of Civil Authorities training he received in Charlottesville. His team faced the full range of legal issues — from how to work with FEMA on their request to build a camp on one of the base’s outlying fields to figuring out what to do with a puppy abandoned before the storm in a timely and an effective manner – and they were able to provide effective solutions within the pressured time constraints they faced.
While Hurricane Harvey appeared almost overnight, Hurricane Irma appeared to take weeks before finally reaching Florida. The storm’s slow, hard-to-predict path raised a number of pre-storm issues. Cmdr. Bill Lucier and Lt. Medardo Martin were tasked with determining the scope of Commander, Navy Region Southeast’s evacuation authority under the recently revised Joint Travel Regulations. However, not all issues were necessarily legal. The emergency preparedness team of Lt. Phil Corrigan and Lt. Ryan Turner ensured that all RLSO SE offices were on track to attain their Conditions of Readiness settings and then, after the swift evacuation order from the chain of command, that all RLSO SE personnel remained accounted for during evacuations to Atlanta. Despite the packed roads and fuel shortages, evacuations went smoothly, marking a great success for, and rewarding the hard work of, the emergency preparedness team.
Although Jacksonville, Mayport, Kings Bay, and Charleston all had to evacuate, Irma’s foremost target was Key West. When facing down a Category 5 hurricane, Lt. Sara Wooten and Legalman 1st Class Alina Davis, staff judge advocate and paralegal, were solely concerned with the mission. Wooten kept in constant contact with the base commanding officer, even when the base lost all communications but landlines. This focus on the mission has been integral to the recovery efforts, which continue to yield diverse and complex legal issues from Navy-FEMA-State coordination to assisting service members file insurance claims and disposing of abandoned boats on Navy property and in navigable waterways.
Much of the work began after Hurricane Irma passed, when service members and their families returned home. At RLSO SE headquarters, command members dedicated the first morning back at work to cleaning the spaces, acquiring over twenty bags of debris. Legal assistance teams established and manned Emergency Family Assistance Centers (EFAC) to centralize the processing of these issues. Those working the EFACs distributed work sheets completing and filing claims forms and directed those with serious legal issues, such as landlord-tenant disputes arising from uninhabitable properties, to legal assistance. Lt. Cynthia Parmley and Lt.j.g. Paul Graziadei manned the EFAC at Naval Air Station Jacksonville for local and displaced personnel. When Naval Air Station Key West personnel received the all-clear message to return to the base, Lt. Sterling Spencer, Lt. Sara Black, and Legalman 1st Class Chelse Wilson volunteered travel to Key West to provide much needed assistance at an EFAC on site.
Unsurprisingly, when Hurricane Nate barreled into Gulfport, Mississippi and Hurricane Maria bombarded Puerto Rico, RLSO SE was well versed in hurricane response and handled the ensuing issues flawlessly. As hurricane season draws to a close, RLSO SE can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that the entire command showed the dedication and perseverance required to provide timely legal advice, both to commanders and individual service members and their families.