Florida accounting firms brace for Hurricane Irma

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CPA firms in Florida were getting ready Friday for Hurricane Irma as it made its way to the Sunshine State after decimating several islands in the Caribbean.

At Cherry Bekaert, the firm has temporarily closed its offices in South Florida. “Given the uncertainty of the storm we physically closed our South Florida offices Wednesday evening and will reopen as soon as practical,” said David Appel, managing partner of the firm’s South Florida practice. “We have technology allowing the ability to work remotely during this time period. We wanted to give those a chance to board their homes, take care of their families first and evacuate if necessary. Our northern offices have been extremely gracious in opening up their homes for those that wanted to get out of Florida. That says a lot about who we are. We are providing hot line numbers so we can keep track of everyone, providing financial assistance to help those in need to cover costs of evacuation.”

Marcum LLP has also closed its offices in that part of the state. “Our South Florida offices are all under mandatory closings,” said Marcum spokesperson Julie Gross Gelfand. “As long as there’s power and internet, [staff] will be open to work remotely. Safety first is our top priority. All staff are encouraged to take safety of themselves and their families foremost. If staff works remotely, all systems are completely secure.”

Other firms have posted messages online to clients. “Our offices are closed in anticipation of Hurricane Irma,” said a message from Berkowitz Pollack Brant CEO Joseph Saka that was posted on the Miami-based firm’s website. “Our firm members’ connectivity to the office and their ability to respond to this email or return phone calls will be impacted by our need to prepare for the storm and potentially evacuate to safer locations. We will respond as quickly as we can under the circumstances.”

Pensacola-based Saltmarsh, Cleaveland & Gund is preparing for the storm by sending instructions to its various offices in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Fort Walton, Orlando and even Nashville. “Our people come first and the clients follow right away,” said Saltmarsh president Lee Bell. “Most of our clients are being impacted by this as well. We’re based in Florida. As president of the firm, I’m based in Tampa. We’ve got offices in Tampa, Orlando, St. Petersburg and we’ve got offices in Tennessee, all of which appear to be in the path of the storm. It’s edging that way every day.”

“Basically the president sends out the general overview of what the firm’s doing for work from home and taking off,” said marketing assistant Zachary Farrington. “They’re communicating through each of the practice leaders, so they’ve sent out the information for who you need to contact. This is the plan that’s being communicated to the shareholders and the practice leaders. They’re the ones who are organizing who will be working from home, who is doing what, who will take over this client’s stuff. They’re coordinating that within each of their practice areas.”

Several of Saltmarsh’s offices are receiving more detailed communications about evacuations, while general information is being communicated to other offices to keep the staff informed of what everyone is doing. “We started communicating with our staff starting Tuesday after we came back after Labor Day,” said HR manager Shannon Lands. “The safety of our employees is first and foremost. We want to make sure they stay safe, and their families stay safe. If they need to evacuate or take time off for their children, we allow them to take that time off with pay.”

She noted that Saltmarsh shut down its Central Florida office at noon on Friday. “Our priority is to make sure everybody stays safe," said Lands. “We’ve been communicating a lot through email. We also have an automated system where we can send out automated phone messages or text messages to all of our employees updating them on certain things. For example, depending on what happens with this storm over the weekend, we might have to make certain decisions, and the best way to find out is via our messaging system. We put in place a process earlier this week. The most important thing is conveying as much information to them as early as we can. The more communicating we can do with them, the better.”

Up to 30 to 40 percent of Saltmarsh's workforce works remotely, Bell estimates, and it's not always easy to keep track of everybody. One employee managed to finalize a report and head to a local bank that was closing at noon before getting around to doing her own disaster preparations. “It’s a colossal disruption that you can’t ignore,” said Bell. “You’ve got to bear down and do it.”

Boca Raton-based Shendell & Pollock, P.L., a law firm specializing in the defense of professional liability claims against accountants, moved items from offices into the interior of the suite, according to partner Ilana Hanau. “Management closed the building yesterday at 3 p.m.,” she said. “Employees were told to take their personal items home, and any food in the kitchen was thrown out, since power could be out for days. Our network is offsite but we expect to shut it down on Saturday in case of any surges or outages.”

Some firms are sending out automated reply messages to clients and others who contact them. Jorge De La Torre, a partner at Miami-based Kabat, Schertzer, De La Torre, Taraboulos & Co., had the following automated reply: “In light of the impending Hurricane Irma, our office will be closed on Thursday (9/7) and Friday (9/8),” he wrote. “We expect to be operational and back in the office on Monday (9/11), depending on the weather and the extent of the aftermath. I apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. Thank you.”

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