Doctors, students seek normalcy in Hurricane Irma’s wake

September 14, 2017
Optometry’s Fund for Disaster Relief helps support doctors, students.

'Normal' is relative in storm-stricken areas that still lack electrical power and basic utilities, yet that's precisely what doctors of optometry and students aim to achieve in the wake of Hurricane Irma's devastation.

Irma came and went days ago, but many in Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina still are assessing the damage to homes, businesses and roads. Although Irma weakened before making its second landfall, it was a Category 4 hurricane in the Florida Keys. That makes 2017 the first time on record that the continental U.S. endured two Category 4 landfalls in the same season—Irma the second in as many weeks after Hurricane Harvey flooded Texas and Louisiana in late August.

To date, 50 doctors of optometry have applied for grants through Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief, a program of Optometry Cares ®—The AOA Foundation following these recent hurricanes. They estimate their total damages at over $6 million.

"It has been tough on everyone," April Jasper, O.D., who practices in West Palm Beach, Florida, said Wednesday, referring to the depth of the damage from the massive Irma.

Finding 'normal' after Hurricane Irma

When Michelle Levin, O.D., returned to her Hialeah, Florida, office earlier this week, she found pools of water and broken ceiling tiles strewn across the floor. Although Dr. Levin shuttered her home ahead of Irma, she says, the practice wasn't, as it's located in a five-story building. Instead, their IT professional advised computers and equipment should be unplugged and covered. It's good that they did.

"Our office is still closed (on Wednesday) with no power or phones, and some water damage," Dr. Levin wrote in an email. "Not sure when we will be able to return to business."

They had hoped to open Monday afternoon, after Irma passed through on Sunday. However, for the time being, Dr. Levin's practice is utilizing a call center to notify patients of the office closing while the damage can be remedied.

Although Irma made landfall in Florida on Sunday, the daunting challenge of the recovery was setting in.

"Power at my home was just restored tonight, thankfully," Dr. Jasper said Wednesday. "My office has no internet nor phones, as is the case for most offices from Key West to Palm Beach and even into Orlando and Jacksonville. Many patients evacuated so they are not here for appointments, which means lost income for many.

"But we are all grateful it wasn't worse!" she added. "I want to say 'thank you' to all my friends who texted and emailed to wish us well and prayed for us throughout."

Although well aware of the devastation across the state, Weslie Hamada, O.D., was counting her blessings. Dr. Hamada rode out the storm in Jacksonville, Florida. And though her street was flooded, the water stopped short of the front steps of her home just a few blocks from the beach.

"I do have electricity and was lucky the house is in one piece," says Dr. Hamada, associate director, Professional Affairs North America for Johnson & Johnson Vision, which closed its Jacksonville headquarters ahead of the storm. "I just have a lot of clean up to do."

Students ride out storm, may now apply for financial support

Days before Irma made landfall in Florida, U.S. territories were already contending with one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. A Category 5 when it blew into the Caribbean, Irma had just torn across Barbuda and the Virgin Islands, its buzz saw winds now cutting at the next island, Puerto Rico. There, second-year optometry student Kadee Marshall and classmates at Inter-American University of Puerto Rico (IAUPR) in Bayamon had a decision to make.

"A handful of students chose to fly home before we were given the official 'ok to evacuate and school is officially cancelled for the week,'" Marshall said via email Saturday. "Monday and Tuesday I debated and searched airline tickets to evacuate, but was torn because we were intended to have two exams this week, so I chose to stay.

"That, and airline tickets were astronomically expensive."

With Irma inbound, IAUPR canceled classes Tuesday ahead of the storm's brunt the next day on-campus students sheltered from the hurricane's worst in concrete dormitories, supported with generators and fresh water supplies. But those living off campus, such as Marshall, could only sit and wait.

Gathering extra water, flashlights and nonperishable foods, Marshall rode out the storm from her upper-level apartment. The wind and rain whipped palm trees around her apartment complex, ultimately causing major power outages that lasted for days.

"I wanted to study, but trying to focus was difficult while I was constantly thinking about how long we wouldn't have water or power," she says.

One week after Irma, life is getting back into a routine, Marshall says. Classes were in session Monday, but intermittent electricity and internet made studies sporadic, and the school's air conditioner was on the fritz. Now, Marshall is helping spread word of new, student disaster aid available.

Following Hurricane Harvey, the American Optometric Student Association (AOSA) executive council reached out to AOA and Optometry Cares—The AOA Foundation about expanding a disaster relief fund for students, and in the wake of Irma, the program became available with support from Cleinman Performance Partners. Students experiencing the effects of a catastrophic event may now apply for a financial assistance grant through Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief. This aid can help students recover basic needs, and getting back to the basics is just what IAUPR students are doing.

"For the most part, we're all getting back to the grind of studying," she says.

AOA urges disaster fund donations

Even before Irma's rains subsided over Florida, insurers tossed around staggering financial tolls. Moody's Analytics projects Irma could cost the U.S. economy upward of $92 billion. Factor in the estimated $108 billion from Harvey, and the combined toll of these two storms is larger than the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history: Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 storm caused $160 billion of damage in today's dollars, reports say, and completely altered the Gulf Coast landscape to this day.

The AOA stands by all those affected by hurricanes Irma and Harvey, and is reaching out to doctors and students, offering messages of unity and support, while encouraging all members to help 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.

Since AOA President Christopher J. Quinn, O.D., first issued an appeal for donations on Aug. 28, the profession responded. As of Sept. 13, more than 350 individual donors, bolstered by substantial contributions from industry partners, have brought total donations to more than $210,000.

Among the industry partners donating to Optometry's Fund for Disaster relief are:

  • Luxottica Wholesale
  • Essilor of America
  • Vision West, Inc.
  • EyeCare Partners
  • The Vision Council
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Optometry's Fund for Disaster Relief

To apply for aid or donate to the cause, visit

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