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NCSC Helps Courts Prepare for Disaster

Last year’s wildfires in California destroyed the houses of three Sonoma County Superior County judges, enveloped the Santa Rosa courthouse with smoke for weeks, and forced the deputies assigned to that courthouse to leave and help other first responders.  The wildfires closed the courthouse for two weeks, leading to a caseload nightmare and initial confusion about how to notify the public about rescheduled court dates.

Stories like this – and in other places that recently have had to deal with the aftermath of natural disasters – made it clear to National Center for State Courts (NCSC) staffers that many courts need help to better prepare and better respond to emergencies that force courts to close. NCSC recently received a grant from SJI to help court officials in hurricane-vulnerable places such as Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and in California (wildfires) and Hawaii (volcanoes).

The first step will be a “lessons-learned” summit early next year, where court officials from those six states and territories will share what has worked and what hasn’t.  Sometime after the summit, NCSC consultants will travel to the six states and territories to review their natural disaster and emergency management plans. The consultants will also make recommendations to update and improve the plans, known as continuity of operations plans, or COOPs.

The grant will also allow NCSC to update its COOP template, which is 10 years old.  An updated COOP template will identify essential steps that court officials should take, and help them know how to connect with state and federal government agencies that can assist them before, during, and after natural disasters.

Finally, NCSC will use a portion of the grant to package the information and make it user friendly, creating an interactive COOP template, and interactive website that court officials can turn to for updated information.