AOA members rally around colleagues affected by Louisiana floods

AOA members rally around colleagues affected by Louisiana floods

Imagine watching clear rainwater change in an instant to rushing, silt-colored river water in the increasingly impassable streets in Denham Springs, Louisiana.

Imagine losing electric power, cell phone service and contact with concerned family and friends—your only contacts reduced to your neighbors and a radio.

Imagine a harrowing, nighttime evacuation through five feet of water, led by the National Guard.

To receive that early support was definitely a psychological boost as well.

Then imagine losing your home, your practice and your vehicles in a slow-moving storm in which nearly 7 trillion gallons of rain fell during the course of a week. That's what some doctors of optometry are facing after a catastrophic flood in southeast Louisiana that left 13 dead and, by some estimates, more than 100,000 homes damaged in mid-August.

In Denham Springs, a few minutes outside of Baton Rouge, an estimated 90 percent of homes were affected. That's where Christopher Wroten, O.D., and his wife Sarah Wroten, O.D., live with their children and practice with his partner, Richard Hunter Bond, O.D. "We've never had floodwaters near where we lived, even through all the recent hurricanes," says Dr. Wroten, noting that his home was several miles from the Amite River and not in a flood plain. Because of that, like their neighbors, the Wroten family carried no flood insurance on their home.

Stranded and cut off from family and his practice partner Dr. Bond for four days, Dr. Wroten wasn't totally prepared for the eerie conditions inside Bond-Wroten Eye Clinic. Fortunately, the office carried flood insurance. "It was not just standing water," Dr. Wroten says. "There had been enough of a current that much of the office equipment and furnishings—the OCT, the retinal cameras, chairs, tables—were thrown against one wall.

"It was pretty much a total loss," he says, "except for the (glass) frames we had, which were above the water level. Fortunately the Optometry Association of Louisiana, through executive director James Sandefur, O.D., reached out quickly to provide support and guidance."

"Optometrists are a family," says Dr. Sandefur.

Help arrives

In Livingston Parish, where Denham Springs is located, 31 inches of rain fell in 15 hours. "It was a thousand-year event, according to the National Weather Service," Dr. Sandefur says. "I have a list of 17 practices that were severely impacted by flooding."

The outpouring of support, from around the country, came as fast as the floodwaters flowed.

Dr. Wroten says colleagues reached out to offer thoughts, prayers and support including:

  • Association members—about 50 doctors and their families from around the state—arrived en masse to the Baton Rouge area to help their fellow doctors begin the cleanup and recovery. Dr. Wroten estimates they saved his family about $30,000 in demolition costs.
  • The association also set up a GoFundMe page. Between the page and other donations, more than $90,000 has been raised for doctors in the area, Dr. Sandefur says. Donations also are being accepted at the association office.
  • Financial support also has come from Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief, a program of Optometry Cares®—The AOA Foundation, which has provided grants totaling more than $517,600 for assistance to doctors impacted by disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The grant application is online and the process is streamlined so that doctors can get aid quickly. Click here to make a donation to the fund.

"That was the first financial support that arrived," Dr. Wroten says of the Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief grant. "It was really a quick and easy application, and those funds helped us get by for the first couple of weeks. To receive that early support was definitely a psychological boost as well."

Says Catherine Amos, O.D., chair of the Foundation's Disaster Relief Committee: "Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of this national disaster. We cannot comprehend your losses but just know that your optometric colleagues are thinking of you and wishing your recovery go as smoothly as possible."

A 'tender moment'

"I could see my building under water on the news," says Cynthia Baker, O.D., who has practiced for more than three decades in Denham Springs.

Dr. Baker, immediate past president of the Optometry Association of Louisiana, was out of town but immediately returned when she heard of the disaster. Then she became stranded in her home and unable to reach her practice for four days. By then, staff, family and friends had cleared out the space. Four feet of water had washed inside.

"Everything is a total loss," Dr. Baker says. "All that is left of my building is the slab, the studs, the roof and a couple of brick walls on the side."

She is counting her blessings. Donations and the AOA Foundation disaster grant have helped keep her afloat. Her practice was insured. The rebuilding has already begun. A contractor was brought in, and she hopes to reopen in six weeks provided the new equipment, fixtures, plumbing and other materials arrive.

She remains upbeat. She has been able to pay staff. Office computers were saved so they have access to their patient records. "Patients can still pick up their contact lenses and glasses from us," says Dr. Baker.

Still, she has had what she calls a "tender moment." There is no replacing some things, such as the prized thank-you notes patients had written her over many years or the association's leather notebook celebrating its 100 years. Sitting in a recent association meeting, she started to cry—for her losses and those of the other doctors. In 33 years, she has very rarely been out of the office for this long.

"I love to work," says Dr. Baker, who will be joined by her daughter Celeste at her practice in 2017. "I have put my feet on the floor every day and thanked God for the privilege of going to the office and seeing patients. It is a privilege to practice optometry."

Be prepared for anything

Dr. Wroten is counting his blessings, too. Local doctors, whose offices are still operating, are pitching in by seeing patients at their locations. Creditors are working with the practice and deferring payments. Staff are being paid—especially important to him.

He thanked everyone for the overwhelming support and hopes to one day be able to repay the kindness. "We're at least a month away from being able to see patients here again at the Denham Springs office," Dr. Wroten says, "but we'll make it by the grace of God and the generosity of our optometry friends and family."

With the recovery underway, Dr. Wroten paused to reflect on what he has learned so far.

Some early advice for colleagues:

  • Review your insurance policies (flood, fire, theft, business interruption, etc.) to make sure they adequately cover your home and office.
  • Review or develop your employee policy manuals to make sure they include policies for communications with staff during inclement weather and during disasters.
  • Take the time to put a recovery plan together, instead of diving in.

That might have saved him some time, Dr. Wroten says.

September 1, 2016

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