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Law firms hit hard, but business to pick up

Largo lawyer John Trevena figures the recent hurricanes will bring him more business than they took away.

Sure, the temporary closure of local courthouses stung. "Potential new clients who are incarcerated like to see quick action on their cases," said Trevena, who practices criminal defense. "When you inform them that the earliest you could get them a courtroom appearance is probably next week, they don't like it." Many decided to go with a free public defender instead.

On the other hand, Trevena said, storms "stress people out." He added, "I'm expecting a flood of domestic-type criminal cases . . . crimes of spousal violence, road rage, drunk driving. It balances out."

In Charlotte County, parts of which took a direct hit from Hurricane Charley, many local lawyers lost not only their offices but their homes.

"Clearly, there will be a dip in income," said Robert Koch, president of the Charlotte County Bar Association. "You can't bill people for work that you don't perform."

But Koch, a civil trial lawyer, said he expects a slew of storm-related lawsuits to more than make up for any losses some firms suffer, including his own. "There'll be endless claims between homeowners and insurance companies," he explained.

When Hurricane Frances hit West Palm Beach, staff at Lewis Longman & Walker waited a day to see if power would be restored. When it wasn't, they braved heat, darkness and 10 flights of stairs to retrieve the office's computer servers, then placed them in a Ford Expedition and drove at a snail's pace through flooded areas to the firm's Bradenton office.

The transfer enabled the firm's West Palm Beach lawyers to dial into the office network from home. But they were unable to send or receive Internet e-mail for five days. Overall, chief operating officer David Rubinstein estimated the firm lost $150,000 in potential business.

"You know how it is," he said. "We're statewide, and essentially, we're always trying to guess where the (next) storm will go."

_ SCOTT BARANCIK, Times staff writer

Canceled policies add to frustration

Chris Ennist of New Port Richey was glad the state is coming to the aid of homeowners getting dropped by their insurance companies. It just came a bit too late for her.

Not long after Hurricane Charley swept through southwest and central Florida, Ennist received notice she was being dropped by her homeowners insurance company, a subsidiary of Travelers. The reason: The insurer said it was overexposed to risk in her area.

Unfortunately, the letter was dated Aug. 27. It wasn't until Sept. 10 that Kevin McCarty, director of Florida's Office of Insurance Regulation, set a moratorium against insurers' dropping policyholders in all of Florida's 67 counties through Nov. 30. His order was spurred by the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Frances.

Before then, the moratorium was limited to areas directly affected by Hurricane Charley, which did not include New Port Richey.

Ennist, who had been with Travelers 19 years, expected to join the rest of the Florida residents now getting higher-priced insurance from Citizens Property, the state-run insurer of last resort.

"I'm sorry we get hurricanes, but it's not something we asked for," she said in frustration. "What are the people of this state supposed to do? We're all supposed to move out?"

_ JEFF HARRINGTON, Times staff writer

Storms' effect minimal on chain restaurants' revenue

Outback Steakhouse estimated that hurricanes Charley and Frances cost it as much as $5-million in sales by forcing the Tampa company to briefly close about 200 restaurants.

Big deal? Not for an eight-chain conglomerate with revenues of $2.7-billion in 2003. Not when 84 percent of all company-owned or joint-venture sites are located outside Florida.

The story was much the same for giants such as Brinker International of Dallas (Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's), Darden Restaurants of Orlando (Red Lobster, Olive Garden) and Applebee's: Size and geographic spread helped absorb the damage.

At least one chain, Checkers Drive-In Restaurants of Tampa, credited Charley and Frances with boosting its revenues.

"We've actually achieved record daily sales at many of our company stores both before and after the storms," said Richard Turer, Checkers' vice president of marketing. "The incremental sales on the "halo days' has made up, or more than made up, the lost revenue we suffered on the days the stores were closed."

Many storm victims who lacked electricity or water in their homes ate out instead. Checkers and its Rally's affiliates obliged them by staying open later than many other chains, Turer said. The company also planned ahead by stocking up on bread and other ingredients before the storms. Plain good luck spared most of its company-owned restaurants from being closed for more than 24 hours.

For smaller operators, the hurricanes could be lethal. A number of restaurants in Punta Gorda and other hard-hit locations were knocked out of business for weeks. Those without business-interruption insurance might never reopen.

Bob Griffin, publisher of Best Restaurants magazine out of Indian Rocks Beach, said many of the independents that take out ads in his regional editions were hurt. He is offering some customers a "hurricane discount" if they pay their bills on time. "The main thing I have encountered is a big slowdown in payments," he said.

In Pinellas County, Griffin said, "I've noticed many signs blown out. That will cost someone. Certainly many employees lost the income of three to seven days. Many tourists have now left the beaches, and new ones have not replaced those who left."

Some larger regional operators took a beating, too. Turer cited one Checkers franchisee who owns stores in Orlando, West Palm Beach and Mobile, Ala., all cities that experienced significant storm damage.

_ SCOTT BARANCIK, Times staff writer