Texas doctors share Hurricane Harvey experiences, heartache

August 29, 2017
Donate to Optometry’s Fund for Disaster Relief to support affected doctors.

There is a heavy fatigue behind the words that Nichole Soto, O.D., uses to describe her hometown of Rockport, Texas, the area where Hurricane Harvey came ashore last week.

"The entire county of Aransas is destroyed," Dr. Soto said Monday. "My husband is there and says it looks like a war zone. I honestly do not know how quickly my town will return."

Although her practice, Rockport Eye Associates, is still standing, the same can't be said of Dr. Soto's home, where a 200-year-old oak tree came crashing down on her house. The Category 4 hurricane winds were estimated between 115 to 145 miles per hour when Harvey made landfall there, thrashing the area for a couple hours. Dr. Soto calls her home a total loss.

Eventually she'll return to Rockport, but for now, Dr. Soto is finding relief work while in San Antonio and intends to help a colleague in nearby Cuero. She's staying as positive as she can. The encouraging calls, texts and messages help.

"Our optometry community is such a blessing," Dr. Soto says. "I so appreciate all the prayers and support."

Now, four days after landfall, the disastrous tropical storm is re-energized for another blow at Louisiana and northward. Still, an additional 18-to-24 inches of rainfall is expected in some places through today, on top of the 30-plus inches already fallen. In Harvey's wake is a path of widespread flooding, devastation and common experiences, shared by the doctors of optometry, students and staff still contending with the worst hurricane to strike the Gulf Coast in more than a decade.

The AOA stands by all of those affected by this storm and is reaching out to doctors and students, offering messages of unity and support, while encouraging all members to help their colleagues in need.

Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief, a program of Optometry Cares®—The AOA Foundation, is optometry's exclusive financial support program that provides immediate assistance to those in need in the wake of natural disasters. The fund has provided more than $579,600 in support since its inception in 2005.

Doctor of optometry pitches in to rescue residents

It was Monday and Beverly Newhouse, O.D., hadn't slept since Saturday morning when she went to her office to see a handful of post-op patients. That was 48 hours ago. Later that day, the rain started, so heavy that she couldn't see through the devastating downpour.

And soon she could see the water creeping up her yard—which sits higher than almost all of the homes in her community south of Houston—and then up her steps. First one step from the bottom and then two steps. For a time, her house lost electricity.

She spent Sunday helping rescue neighbors—she and her husband, Mike Newhouse, in their family kayak and in a neighbor's boat. To help, she had waded through chest-high floodwaters. The stranded were delivered safely to the National Guard. An elderly woman and her son moved into the Newhouse's home—area emergency shelters are full.

"We're all helping each other," says Dr. Newhouse, who spent part of Tuesday helping neighbors pull their belongings from their flooded homes.

Meanwhile, she was staying in touch with her practice's two other doctors of optometry and 14 paraoptometric staff members. Her League City, Texas, practice is about 30 minutes away. As of Monday morning, water was just beginning to surge into the practice, according to her office operations director, Tabitha Smith.

"It's bad," Dr. Newhouse says. "I had no idea it was going to be this bad. It's raining and there's just no place else for the water to go. Right now, everybody is just trying to stay safe and survive.

"People are not going to be able to go back home for a long, long time," she adds. "I've been here since 1998, and I've never seen anything like it. When the rain stops and the flooding recedes, this is going to be so devastating."

Despite the devastation, Dr. Newhouse counts herself among the lucky ones. On Tuesday, the water was starting to recede down her yard. They were able to make it to a nearby grocery store.

They are hardly out of the deep end, though, judging by the weather forecast.

She believes doctors of optometry will support doctors of optometry. She urged them to send prayers, call their friends and check on them, and donate to the AOA disaster fund.

"It will take a nation to get this back together," Dr. Newhouse says.

Riding out the storm

University of Houston College of Optometry student Christopher Lopez and his wife can only watch and wait as the floodwaters recede from their Kemah, Texas, home. Lopez's optometric textbooks and spiral-bound notes are some of the casualties from a flooded garage over the weekend. Although the community on the western shore of Galveston Bay was issued a voluntary evacuation order, Lopez says there would be nowhere to head.

"Even if we did want to evacuate, there is no realistic manner in which to leave Houston as all the major roads are flooded," he said Monday. Making matters worse, the drainage pond at the neighborhood's entrance has overtopped, while the surrounding levies are brimming.

"I was scheduled to fly out of Houston this Wednesday to take Part 3 of the national boards exam; however, not only are both major Houston airports closed until further notice, but I also couldn't drive to the airport even if I wanted to due to the flooding."

With still more rain in the forecast, Lopez says, his heart goes out to the first responders and volunteers doing what they can to help those less fortunate. He encourages colleagues to lend assistance in any way they can.

"I am confident that throughout this disaster and afterward, the people of Texas will demonstrate camaraderie and resiliency."

Coming together

That sense of camaraderie is something that Ronald L. Hopping, O.D., AOA past president and practitioner in southeast Houston, noticed shining through his own staff, even as the storm still raged outside. Taking preemptive measures, Dr. Hopping made it a point to send group text messages to his staff and associates about office closures for the foreseeable future. That simple action turned into a way for his staff to come together.

"What I hoped would happen—and has—is that it would help with staff camaraderie," he says. "They've been sharing their experiences and offering to help one another. The staff response has been amazingly positive. We even had one of our doctors create a list of what to do if you have damage in the home, and we modified it for our staff since six or seven of them have had their homes flooded."

So, too, bolstering that level of amity, doctors remotely accessed their patient schedules for the week and began personally contacting each patient about office closures. Dr. Hopping hoped that action would help reinforce the doctor-patient connection, and by and large, it has—patients had questions about contact lens hygiene, getting floodwater in their eyes or people who had lost glasses in the flooding. The practice will try to help as many people as they can as it aims to open Wednesday.

On a personal note, Dr. Hopping says he did what he could at his home, moving important documents and possessions to the second story of his home. Now, he's attentively watching security monitors for signs of flooding at his offices and keeping a weather-eye on his rain gauge: 35 inches and counting on Monday.

"They talk about 100-year floods, well I've been through three or four 100-year floods, and now they're talking about this being an 800-year flood," Dr. Hopping says. "One of our office parking lots is actually being used as a staging ground to ferry people in and out of neighborhoods. People are doing what they can, getting their boats out and helping people.

"We live in such a very divided world right now, but the community has really come together."

Life after the storm

For at least one doctor of optometry, life was starting to inch toward some semblance of normalcy—providing care to patients.

"We are all fine here in Corpus Christi," John McIntyre, O.D., wrote in an email Tuesday morning. "The final 30-mile shift to the north spared us a disaster. The office was undamaged, as was my house.

"We are reopening today for the back-to-school exams, as the schools have delayed their start date till next Tuesday," Dr. McIntyre added.

Last Friday, ahead of Hurricane Harvey making landfall, Dr. McIntyre had heeded the warnings and evacuated his Corpus Christ, Texas practice including seven other doctors of optometry and staff. Then, forecasters had predicted that Corpus Christi would bear the brunt of the storm when it came inland. He waited out the storm in Austin, Texas, with his elderly parents. The practice kept patients apprised of events on its social media page.

As it turned out, the hardest-hit areas were north of Corpus Christi.

As he prepared to reopen, Dr. McIntyre's mind was on other doctors of optometry who aren't faring as well as he.

"My colleagues north of here in Rockport took the brunt of it," he said. "Their recovery will take a while."

Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief

To apply for aid or donate to the cause, visit aoafoundation.org/OFDR.

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