'Like a warzone' - offshore law firms in Caribbean uprooted in aftermath of Hurricane Irma

Offshore law firms with offices in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) were closed and still scrambling on Monday (11 September) to locate employees and lawyers in the wake of devastation left behind by Hurricane Irma.

Irma was a category five storm when it made landfall late last week in the BVI, a key financial services hub and overseas territory of the UK. Power is still out, mobile phone service is limited and stories are emerging of a fraying social fabric, including looting. The fiancé of one partner at leading offshore firm Appleby, Andrew Jowett, who is stuck on the island of Tortola, told the BBC it is “like a warzone” on the island.

Most of the law firms in the so-called ‘offshore magic circle’ that have offices in the BVI and other Caribbean islands had alerts on their websites about office closures. Some directed concerned family members hoping to contact relatives to certain emails. Ogier, for instance, asked family members to contact BVIDisasterRecovery@ogier.com. Carey Olsen directed relatives to BVIINFO@careyolsen.com.

Maples and Calder used a Facebook account to keep track in real time of employees they had made contact with from their BVI office in Road Town, Tortola. As of Monday afternoon, all the firm’s employees were accounted for.

“All our BVI employees are now confirmed as OK! Thank you to everyone who helped locate our BVI Maples family!” the Facebook page read.

Reached by phone, Appleby corporate partner David Clark declined to comment on his firm’s status, but said that he had evacuated the BVI before Irma hit and was now focusing his efforts on helping other Appleby employees escape. (Appleby’s websites states that Clark has relocated to its Bermuda office.)

Clark’s partner, Jowett, was receiving help in that regard from his fiance, Laura Elliot, who was urging the British Government to bring helicopters to Tortola – the largest island in the BVI – to rescue her husband, their 23-month-old daughter and 10-month-old son.

“There is nowhere to go. There is nothing left there,” Elliot told the BBC. “They cannot live there anymore. It will be six to eight months before there is power back there. There is no other option than evacuation. If they stay, people will die.”

Relatives of Mourant Ozannes employees currently in the BVI are being encouraged to contact the firm’s Cayman Islands-based global head of human resources, Sarah Kelly, to provide or request information.

Other top offshore firms with offices in the BVI include Bedell Cristin, Carey Olsen, Conyers Dill & Pearman, Harney Westwood & Riegels and Walkers.

The BVI and other islands near it did receive some good news this week as Hurricane Jose, which had been trailing behind Irma, veered on a trajectory north of the Caribbean, although it could still threaten the eastern seaboard of the US.

As for Irma, now a tropical storm, it has resulted in the closure of courtslaw schools and other businesses throughout Florida, Georgia and other southeastern states.