Storm Stories - Veterinarians share their trials following back-to-back hurricanes


"I never felt so helpless in my life," says Dr. Dennis Selig, a Gulfport, Miss., veterinarian, recalling his emotion during Hurricane Katrina. "I couldn't stop anything from being ruined. I thought about how family and friends were holding up and before the storm was over, I was thinking about what I would need to do to fix everything. What Hurricane Katrina didn't finish off, Rita did."

Gulfport, Miss.

"I never felt so helpless in my life," says Dr. Dennis Selig, a Gulfport, Miss., veterinarian, recalling his emotion during Hurricane Katrina. "I couldn't stop anything from being ruined. I thought about how family and friends were holding up and before the storm was over, I was thinking about what I would need to do to fix everything. What Hurricane Katrina didn't finish off, Rita did."

Veterinary students tend to the walking wounded at LSU's intensive care unit.

The apartments next door to Selig's practice have been condemned due to damage, he says.

"During the storm, it seemed only as bad as other hurricanes in the past. The extent of the damage wasn't fully known until afterwards. There were some white-knuckle moments when I could hear shingles and tar-paper being ripped off; it was pretty frightening."

The Northwood Hills Veterinary Hospital is located 12 miles north of the beach.

"I have a policy that I stay at the clinic when things like this happen. I sent my family away and stayed with the 50 boarded animals during both storms. During Katrina, the animals handled the banging of metal and falling trees much better than I did."

Despite the anxiety felt during the storms, Selig says emotions felt afterward were overpowering.

"The first emotion of gratitude was felt from the outpouring support from the veterinary community: thoughts, prayers and compassion from all walks of life. Second to that is the reality of what a mess we're left with."

Veterinarians are trying to rebuild some semblance of a practice after Katrina crushed buildings and took out electricity for three weeks. But many whose practices flooded are finding insurance carriers aren't paying out, Selig says.

"I am fortunate my practice did not flood," he adds. "At least three other area veterinarians found it wasn't only insurance carriers who refused to pay for repairs to their practice. Banks will not give loans either, saying there is no demand for a veterinary clinic in the now sparsely populated area.

"My practice is one of the few that are operational right now. We have to make repairs still, but overall, we're very grateful."

Pass Christian, Miss.

Dr. Ron Hunt of Pass Christian Veterinary Hospital didn't fare as well.

"This has been the most difficult trial of my career."

Hunt not only lost his practice; he made the grizzly discovery that all 20 boarded animals in his hospital drown from Katrina's tidal surge.

In coping with the 2,000 animals moving through the Louisiana State University Parker Coliseum shelter, DVMs needed a quarantine area to avoid potential disease spread.

To make matters more difficult, client records were destroyed, so there was no way to contact owners, Hunt says. "I have to wait for them to get in touch with me." The one's that did were angry, Hunt says quietly.

"I never thought the clinic would become completely submerged; it never even occurred to me that this would happen. The least I could do was give the animals a proper burial and apologize," he adds.

Hunt reluctantly left his home and practice once officials announced a mandatory evacuation. His family had already traveled north while he considered riding the storm out at his home.

Hunt's practice is now covered in mold, while the ceiling and walls are buckled and caving in from the moisture.

"Until I can rebuild, I'm planning on setting up a temporary practice where people can bring their pets for vaccines and basic care, Hunt says. "We'll see how that goes."

New Orleans

Restrictions against business owners and residents kept Dr. Lily Rai away from her New Orleans veterinary clinic, but vandals managed to ransack the few remaining valuables spared by Hurricane Katrina.

"I am trying to focus on positive not negative energies, but I feel like I am stuck between a rock and a hard place," Rai says. "I can't get into my clinic, but hoodlums can, and there is something wrong with that."

Rai lost all of the equipment in her practice, and the building itself is predicted to be condemned.

"I had 10 feet of water in my practice, but I can't say how it looks now. I only know the clinic was ransacked because a neighboring business owner alerted me," Rai says. "I just need to get to my practice."

Rai says all of her client records are gone, and she has no way of accessing them, another problem to add to the mix.

For the past five years, Rai and her two associates have been performing low-cost spay and neuter procedures while educating clients on basic home care.

"I felt like we were making a difference in the community and now, I don't know if the area will be condemned or if I can rebuild," she adds.

"This is all very disheartening. There are no people to open a business for right now, but I know residents want to come back. I'm looking into an SBA loan. It's a waiting game at this point."

Bridge City, Texas

The winds were so severe, water blew through closed windows in Dr. Albert Pugh's living room.

That's where his family and pets gathered to ride out Hurricane Rita.

The storm wasn't as kind to his practice. It was demolished.

While he brought three boarded dogs and a cat to his home, the veterinarian sandbagged his barn to protect four horses. The structure held, but the roof was torn off.

"The sandbags did a good job of keeping the water out of the barn. I went outside during a low point in the storm and took the sandbags down to let the water drain out," he says. "The wind was tremendous and the gusts were even worse."

The small animal practitioner has been working at the Bridge City Animal Hospital for 29 years and says he does not plan to move elsewhere now.

"I have the distinct honor of being the only veterinarian in the city, and now I am the only veterinarian I know of to have lost an entire practice because of Rita.

"The first thing you see when you walk into the clinic is the ceiling and insulation hanging and lying on the floor," Pugh says. "The rain came in, saturating everything. The outside of the clinic looks like World War III, with trees down everywhere and debris scattered."

Pugh's insurance carrier gave him a check for $1,500, but he says he expects more after a full assessment is made.

Lined with mold, his practice and equipment lay in ruin. "No one can stay in the practice for more than a few minutes, Pugh says. "The air is so thick and the odor is unbearable."

In the mean time, he is considering a portable practice or covering the barn for temporary use.

"We've never been hit this hard," Pugh says. "In a two-week time, I've learned more than I ever wanted to know about generators."

Pugh says living is very primitive in hurricane-hit areas. "You sweat all day, then take freezing-cold showers because there's nothing to heat the water."

Pugh wants to get back to practicing as soon as possible, he says. Until then, he donated his time to help deliver generators to veterinary practices in the area, courtesy of the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA).

Jasper, Texas

Gusts from Hurricane Rita shoved a veterinary clinic wall 8-inches off its foundation. Dr. Roy Smathers recounts the story as he took shelter at the hospital with his wife, son and brother-in-law.

"I have been in practice here for 15 years and have never seen this kind of damage," Smathers says. "During the storm, we were constantly hearing noise; it sounded like the inside of a washing machine."

The Fain and Smathers Veterinary Hospital boarded 60 animals during the storm. Despite rising water in the kennel, the animals all survived, Smathers says.

"We were sitting in the dark listening to everything happening outside," he adds. "It was unseasonably hot, and the humidity was at tropical levels. I was very concerned with what might happen, but we all remained pretty calm. We'd hear a horrible noise, then see a big piece of metal flying past a window."

The hospital will need repairs to several areas, Smathers says. But flooding remained minimal, and the animals weathered the storm. Trees litter the ground surrounding the practice and his home, but overall, Smathers considers himself fortunate.

"I have been open for business, but at a lower level than usual considering there's no electricity; therefore no X-ray or blood chemistry machines," he says. "I've been euthanizing a lot of older animals that cannot bear the heat; many are suffering from pneumonia. Other cases involve massive hot spots, lacerations and broken bones."

Since the building did not sustain serious structural damage, Smathers and his partner, Dr. David Fain, plan to be mostly back to business as usual as soon as the electricity returns.

"Everything takes three times as much effort as usual because of the power outages and heat," Smathers says. "But returning to the normal routine will be the best therapy for everyone that endured these hurricanes."

Winnie, Texas

Dr. Sarah Aucoin-Matak predicts it will take more than a year for this area to recover from Rita's winds and rain.

Matak, an associate veterinarian, returned to the practice right after the storm and witnessed its destructive forces.

The Winnie office and sister hospital, the Dowlen Road Veterinary Center in Beaumont, Texas, stayed open through the storm, housing 106 animals at the Beaumont location.

The mixed animal practice had no power or running water, but veterinarians and some staff members kept the clinic open to help those in need.

"It felt really good to help people take care of at least one of their problems," Matak says. "They could bring their pet to us and know it would be taken care of."

Matak recalls treating horses for heat stroke, lacerations, rope burns and ophthalmic ulcers from sand.

"People think there aren't problems in Texas because Rita wasn't as bad as Katrina, but it will be more than a year before things can return to normal," she says.

Matak predicts production for the hospitals will be down because of the lack of electricity and temporary population decrease, but credits TVMA for helping area practitioners get back to normalcy by delivering generators, gas, food and veterinary medical supplies.

"People really pulled together with the storm," Matak says. "It was rough on many practices but was hard on the animals, too."

Orange, Texas

The Foskey Veterinary Clinic was Dr. Richard Reinap's first veterinary job after graduating from Texas A&M in May. Despite predictions of the storm's path, the clinic remained open.

"Communication here is poor, and everyone is working in immense heat with no air conditioning or electricity to speak of," Reinap says. "The ability to practice at the level you want is not an option; there are no X-rays, ultrasounds and limited diagnostic abilities. There isn't even running water."

The roof was torn off the boarding facility behind the clinic while animals were inside, Reinap says. However, no animals were injured.

Reinap decided to help TVMA deliver supplies to veterinary practices in need after Rita hit. Since city officials are telling residents not to return home until after electricity is restored, he predicts that the biggest concern for practitioners now the storm has past is getting back to the level of business before the hurricane.

"A lot of people will be out of a job or will have used their disposable income because of the evacuation," Reinap says. "Things like updating vaccines and routine exams will not be a priority."

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