Beyond Katrina

November 1, 2005
Jennifer Fiala

Jennifer Fiala is a former senior editor of DVM Newsmagazine.

Looking numb and weary, Dr. Gary Levy stands emotionless in what appears to have been a waiting room. His co-owners fled to higher ground, staff relocated and all that's left is the seemingly insurmountable task of reviving a practice disaster covered in mold, rotting in water and radiating a noxious stench.

"It's like a bad Dali painting."

Looking numb and weary, Dr. Gary Levy stands emotionless in what appears to have been a waiting room. His co-owners fled to higher ground, staff relocated and all that's left is the seemingly insurmountable task of reviving a practice disaster covered in mold, rotting in water and radiating a noxious stench.

Dr. Patrick McSweeney

The small animal practitioner and his longtime friend Dr. Patrick McSweeney seem impervious to the New Orleans heat as they carefully step through the dark, water-soaked building using flashlights to dodge downed furniture. "Everything moves in a flood," McSweeney observes. "Furniture in one room finds its way into the next." They stop to salvage associate Dr. Amy Grayson's diplomas from a disintegrating wall.

Levy has insurance on his mind. Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, adjusters had not assessed damages. He predicts the practice's $100,000 flood policy won't come close to covering repairs, and with little structural damage to the brick building much aid isn't likely to come from elsewhere.

"I can not begin to image how you can recover from this," he says, examining the wreckage of his waiting room. "I don't even know what questions to ask. Seventy percent of my clients come from a zip code I think will need to be bulldozed."

Armed with his records, Levy now wrestles with billing those same clients the $40,000-plus in accounts receivable to get repairs moving and possibly pay health insurance for the practice's 20 employees. It's delicate business, especially considering the financial plight of most clients. While his house escaped flood damage, he knows many area residents weren't as fortunate.

Dr. Gary Levy

"What do you say to clients who don't even have a home? Please pay if you can?" he asks. "Being hopeful is definitely not easy, but you do it or you walk away. I'm not ready to do that. The dust hasn't even settled yet."

Test of fortitude

Levy got out of New Orleans 48 hours before Hurricane Katrina roared into the Gulf Coast Aug. 29. He spent three weeks with his wife and children in Baton Rouge living with strangers. Now back at his virtually undamaged home, he's trying to pick up the practice pieces. While McSweeney, who practices in nearby Metairie, receives government assistance because floodwater ravaged his New Orleans home, business owners aren't as fortunate. Money hasn't been handed out to them.

Facing the devastation: Dr. Gary Levy (Photo 1) and associate veterinarian Amy Grayson (Photo 6) take in their flooded five-doctor Lakeview Veterinary Hospital in New Orleans (Photos 3, 5, 7). Levy long-time friend Dr. Patrick McSweeney (Photo 2, left) offered his nearby practice as refuge to see clients and patients until they can rebuild.

"If some of that money doesn't eventually trickle down to small businesses, there's no hope," Levy says.

'A storm hit Metairie; a bomb hit New Orleans'

McSweeney's practice keeps the team occupied while they await damage estimates. The Animal Medical and Surgical Hospital, one of just two open practices in the area, has water damage and a temporary roof, but losses are minimal compared to New Orleans. The first floor of McSweeney's house looks much like Levy's practice — bowing floors, moldy walls and furniture everywhere. Now homeless, the 45-year-old practitioner, his wife Beverly and nearly 30 of their cats sleep on the hospital floor. In between caring for roughly 100 intakes, McSweeney and Levy take on the business of saving animals.

Dr. Patrick McSweeney home was ravaged by floodwater (Photos 8, 14). "Everything moves in a flood," he tells DVM Newsmagazine. His nearby practice's roof and outer facade (Photo 9) sustained damage from the high winds and rain. Senior Editor Jennifer Fiala (Photo 10, left) talks with Beverly McSweeney (right) about her experience in the storm. In Photo 13, McSweeney eyes the repair of the now infamous 17th St. Canal levee.

In the early days after the storm, McSweeney rescued clients' animals by boat, now symbolically tied to the railing in front of his practice. With the waters receding, a small team of friends and colleagues throw food and carriers in the back of vans, wave their American Veterinary Medical Association badges at National Guard checkpoints and head into ground zero on a missions to find pets.

Extreme measures

McSweeney never imagined he'd break into clients' homes.

"I've never done an illegal thing in my life; now I know 100 ways to break into a house."

He runs down the list of lessons from the field: doorknobs fail, doors swell shut, cabinets fall from the walls and refrigerators float. All the houses look the same, covered in mold and what McSweeney calls "black stuff." Windows often afford the best means of entry; and be careful with stairs, he notes.

Frightened animals tend to hide despite hunger. What the rescuers can't catch, they feed, water and return to look for tracks in the muck that blankets everything. Back at the Metairie practice, Beverly is charged with taking digital photos of the pets and e-mailing them to clients for identification. The reunions "are the best," she smiles.

Now approaching one month after the storm, Levy and McSweeney brace for homeowners to return and the likely onslaught of severely dehydrated and emaciated pets to come through the Metairie practice's doors.

"Every cage here is filled," McSweeney says. "You wonder, 'am I physically up to this?' Then you realize you don't have a choice. You have to be."

Turning point

As for the destruction, Levy and McSweeney are beginning to make peace with it. They don't worry about the finger pointing that engrosses the nation concerning allegations of federal emergency mismanagement.

"You don't have time to worry about the politics when you're wondering where you're going to sleep at night," McSweeney says.

Instead, they focus on the "small miracles" that have helped them get through each day. After Rita peeled off McSweeney's practice roof, the veterinarian and his wife raced through the night with litter pans to catch and dump water. Their efforts were saved when a pair of Florida roofers stopped and offered to fire down a temporary roof.

"One step forward was all I needed to know I'd keep moving and recover again," he says.

Cleaning up after what's arguably the worst U.S. hurricane on record has been a test of character, a learning experience, the veterinarians say. McSweeney credits Seinfeld reruns on a fuzzy television for his emotional stability and ability to laugh.

"Hidden in the emotion of all this stuff, you have to appreciate what you still have left. We're going to actually get through this mess."