Some practitioners still bailing out of dire situations
Veterinary practices hit by Hurricane Sandy late last October were at various stages of recovery five months after the disaster.
The American Veterinary Medical Foundation has received grant applications from New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey and had paid out more than $60,000 by the start of April.
||Margate Animal Hospital, in building at right (Photo by Dr. Alex Helmi)
The Foundation awards Disaster Veterinary Animal Care Reimbursement grants of up to $5,000 to eligible recipients for veterinary care of animal victims of disaster and Disaster Veterinary Practice Relief grants of up to $2,000 to reimburse practices damaged in a disaster, specifically for items not covered by insurance.
One of the recipients of a relief grant was Dr. Charles Greco (ROS ’93), who owns two practices about 18 miles apart on Long Island, an outpatient clinic in Ridge, N.Y., and the Animal Medical Hospital of Centereach.
Dr. Greco couldn’t reach the Ridge location for two days after the storm, because roads were blocked. Plus, electricity had been shut off because of downed power lines. When he arrived, Dr. Greco found he had lost all the biologics in the refrigerator as well as agents used to run blood work. The clinic’s roof saw a fair amount of damage, which resulted in water leaking into the building. This ruined the ceiling tiles, reception area computers, and surgical area.
Not until early March did he receive the last check from his insurance company. Dr. Greco spent about $17,000 out of pocket to fix the damage at his clinic and replace inventory. He gives a lot of credit to the AVMF for sending him $2,000 to get started on the repairs back in November.
||Waterlogged patient records at Margate Animal Hospital (Photo by Dr. Alex Helmi)
“Every little bit helps,” he said, noting that everything was “back to normal” about a month after the practice reopened in early December.
As a lifelong Long Island resident, Dr. Greco said he was complacent because so many times before, there had been warnings of hurricanes without much damage materializing.
“We didn’t really take the storm as seriously as we should have. Maybe we would have prepared more, like making sure we had the generators up and running. We did have generators, but when we tried to start them, they weren’t in working order, that is, until we got them fixed.”
“We were damaged and able to get through it, but other practices I heard about—my heart goes out to them,”
Dr. Greco said.
Dr. Lewis J. Gelfand (ISU ’83) of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Long Beach, N.Y., said theirs was one of the less-fortunate clinics.
The building was filled with 4 1/2 feet of sewage water, effectively obliterating everything at the clinic, save for a dental x-ray unit mounted on the wall. It took two weeks before they could even start cleaning the building and until the beginning of February to begin reconstruction.
“From one of our insurance companies, we got zero. We are getting flood insurance, and that will help considerably, but it’s still not close to paying what we need,” Dr. Gelfand said.
Since Dec. 1, 2012, his practice has been sharing space with another one up the street. He’s had to reduce the number of staff from 28 to 7, and that includes going from four veterinarians down to two.
“We’re operating at 50 percent gross, which is amazing for us,” Dr. Gelfand said, particularly because he estimates about 40 percent of residents hadn’t returned to their homes as of late March.
He’s been struck by the generosity of clients who not only have donated “significant sums of money” for the clinic’s reconstruction but also brought in pizza and other gifts for the staff.
Dr. Gelfand anticipated reopening the clinic by the end of April but with about a dozen staff and reduced hours.
“We’ll see. The problem is there is no way to anticipate how business will be,” he said.
Across the river in New Jersey, Dr. Michael Tuder is owner-director and laser surgeon at four hospitals in Hudson County.
At age 9, he began helping at the Bayonne practice his uncle started in 1942. He received his veterinary degree in 1982 in the Dominican Republic. The Animal Infirmary of Hoboken opened in 1995 followed by hospitals in downtown Jersey City in 2004 and Jersey City Heights in 2012.
“Hoboken was our flagship practice and certainly our busiest. That changed overnight,” he said. The hurricane cut power to the practices. Hoboken flooded. Two feet of water ruined x-ray machines, surgical lasers, thousands of pounds of dog food, flooring, and computers, and left mold between walls.
||Medications (left) and thousands of pounds of dog food (right) were among the losses at Animal Infirmary of Hoboken. (Photos by Dr. Michael Tuder)
“To close a thriving practice for 11 weeks is almost unimaginable,” he said. “You take a deep breath, roll up your sleeves, and get back to work, to survive.”
Most overwhelming was knowing the livelihoods of his 16 veterinarians and 40 staff were at stake. “This devastating situation afforded me the luxury to see the best in my staff,” he said. The veterinarians were willing to take a 20 percent pay cut so that everyone’s jobs were saved. Everyone rallied. Staff were shifted among hospitals, some helped the contractor or made deliveries. Dr. Tuder made house calls.
“The most unforeseen shock was the unpreparedness I had for dealing with the insurance company. And there’s no such thing as FEMA for a small business,” he said. He ended up borrowing a line of credit against his retirement fund from an investment firm.
With power loss deemed the cause of damage, there were more exclusions than inclusions on his practice coverage, which was through a veterinary organization. When he bought his policies, he had unknowingly been dealing with the organization’s subcontractor, whom he does not think adequately educated him on a practice’s needs. After the disaster, he found the subcontractor minimally responsive, so he turned to the AVMA PLIT for advice, even though it was not his carrier. “When I called the (Trust), somebody was kind enough to call me back and give me guidance. I will never forget that,” he said.
Dr. Tuder also received a $2,000 AVMF relief grant.
Five miles south of Atlantic City in the island community of Margate City, N.J., solo practitioner Dr. Alex Helmi, a 1994 graduate of Alexandria University in Egypt, was prospering in the practice he bought in 2011. He planned to buy the building he leased and add a boarding facility—until Sandy struck.
“Imagine a whole city underwater for three days, up to 6 feet,” he said. The ocean dumped sand and seaweed that took six weeks for the city to clear. Power was out, phone lines were down, and he couldn’t return to the island for days.
For two weeks, he stayed with a veterinarian friend while the practice was closed. The building owner repaired damages, and Dr. Helmi replaced or fixed equipment and supplies, assisted by one of his veterinary technicians and her husband. Medications and vaccines had been destroyed.
With so many clients losing homes, livelihoods, and savings, business has been down 50 percent, forcing him to lay off staff and cut hours of his two technicians and three support staff. Clients who have not moved permanently offshore will return slowly, he said, but meanwhile, his mortgage, lease, salaries, and other expenses are mounting.
Dr. Helmi encountered red tape and dead ends with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and his insurer, FEMA because of unrealistic loan terms. His insurer would pay out only if he could prove that wind pushed the floodwater into his clinic.
Surviving on credit cards, he has sought work at other practices, but some are concerned they will lose clients to him. To support his family, he drives 2 1/2 hours north on weekends to work at a vaccine clinic.
“I’m in a tough place,” he said, holding out hope for a bank or FEMA loan, and for a practice in South Jersey to offer relief work. “I’m hoping to get to the summer. If I do not get out of this hole, I am going to have to file for bankruptcy.”
The $2,000 AVMF grant helped not only with Dr. Helmi’s bills but also his morale. “After my experience with FEMA and the bank, I never thought (the AVMF was) going to call me. I knocked on so many doors. It was the fact someone cared to listen to my pain.”