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'It's never been this bad'

Dentists recount stories, damage from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma

September 18, 2017

By Michelle Manchir

Natural disaster: Flooring, bricks and sheetrock, among other debris, sit in front of Dr. Brad Jennings' home after floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. Dr. Jennings said his entire neighborhood was "decimated," and took his family to stay about a half mile away at his dental office.
Houston — When 25 inches of rain slammed her house in just a few hours, Dr. LeeAnn McQuade called a number she saw circulating on Facebook to have a boat pick up her family from their soon-to-be flooded home just west of Beaumont, Texas.

With her husband, 8-year-old daughter, dog and cat who unhappily came along in a crate, Dr. McQuade said a man in a power boat showed up to carry them to the only nearby place accessible at the time — the nearby city of China. There, a couple she'd never met invited them to stay in a spare bedroom for the night, wash and dried their clothing and served the family a hot meal.

It was the first in a series of extraordinary kindnesses Dr. McQuade says she's witnessed since Hurricane Harvey, the first major hurricane to strike the U.S. in more than a decade, hit the Lone Star state, making landfall Aug. 25.

To be sure, dozens of dentists were affected by the storm, which, according to the Associated Press, poured several feet of rain on southeast Texas in a few days. The storm has been blamed for at least 60 deaths and displacing thousands of others, the AP said.

Saving what they can: Dr. Eva Boldridge Izu, a Houston dentist, smiles as members of the El Paso Rapid Response Team and her father, George Boldridge, second from right, help salvage what remained in her dental office. Her dental office was flooded after Hurricane Harvey and she will temporarily relocate.
The Texas Dental Association had received more than 40 applications for emergency disaster grants as of Sept. 11, said Dr. Rita Cammarata, immediate past president of the TDA and its interim executive director. Though it's unclear how many total dentists have been affected by the storm, "I would say that isn't close to all that have been affected," she said of the 40 applicants.

Both the ADA Foundation and the Texas Dental Association are providing emergency disaster assistance grants to dentists affected by Hurricane Harvey. The two organizations are collaborating to help ease the paperwork burden on applicants. Applications sent to the ADA Foundation are reviewed and then forwarded to the Texas Dental Association Relief Fund to be considered for further funding —  and vice-versa. 

The Greater Houston Dental Society has also been providing assistance and resources, in addition to coordinating the donations of oral hygiene products from dental supply companies and dentists to benefit facilities that have served as shelters for evacuees.

For Dr. McQuade, an equestrian competitor on the side, the total loss of a car and horse trailer and much of the furniture from the first floor of her home "are minor" compared to what many around her are enduring, she said.

She is especially thankful the water that seeped into her house did not reach up to the electrical outlets, keeping many of their appliances functional. About two days after her family's dramatic departure by boat, they were able to return home. The first level will be need to be remodeled, Dr. McQuade said, but she has already found a contractor to start tearing out dry wall. While lots of work and drying out awaits, the outpouring of assistance from family, friends and the community, including Dr. Cammarata, is "unbelievable," she said.

"If I had one wish from all of this, I would love for everybody who has reached out to help down here to know how much I appreciate it," she said.

Roadway 'looked like the Amazon River'

When Dr. Eva Boldridge Izu was finally able to scrounge up boots and waders and catch a boat ride to explore what remained of her Houston office that sits near a reservoir, she was welcomed inside by snake swimming past her in three feet of water.

Even getting into the office, located in a strip mall off one of the main thoroughfares in Houston, was a feat, she said, because the roadway "looked like the Amazon River."

"At one point the current was so bad we had to jump off and push the boat to keep it from hitting one side of the street," she said.

As of early September, Dr. Izu said getting around Houston is nearly impossible because of obstructed, closed and flooded roadways, making it difficult to see patients or plan her office's temporary relocation.

While the building her office is in will likely need ample time for repairs, Dr. Izu said she was able to salvage some of her larger equipment — a vacuum mixer, a triad machine — and she is seeing patients thanks to a mobile unit she uses and also thanks to the open door policies of some of her colleagues, who've invited her to use space in their own offices until she can rebuild.

And fortunately, "by the grace of God," Dr. Izu said, her home was one of five in her neighborhood to be spared from flooding.

Office becomes home

The second night of Harvey's landfall, Dr. Brad Jennings' Houston home lost power. He moved his family — his wife, three children and four dogs — into the closest refuge: his orthodontic office about a half-mile away.

Outside — for now: Water builds outside of Dr. LeeAnn McQuade's home near Beaumont, Texas, "moments before it started flowing in under the walls."
It was "a little tight and uncomfortable," but Dr. Jennings bought a charcoal grill and ended up hosting a cookout for several families in his "decimated" neighborhood who'd lost power.

"It turned out to be a nice night," he said.

For a week, his office is where his family lived, before heading to a hotel for two nights. He doesn't expect to return home for about four months, he said. All of the downstairs flooring, a brick wall and two feet of sheetrock in his home had to be removed from his family home.

But Dr. Jennings isn't dwelling on the losses. When asked about having to rebuild, he said, "the love that the rest of the nation has given us is unbelievable. The minute that the water went down enough, our area was flooded with volunteers from everywhere helping homeowners demo their houses before mold set in. I'm very fortunate that I have my family and everything important to me."

Away from home indefinitely

A lifelong Houstonian, Dr. Kathy O'Keefe knows the city by the bay has a tendency to flood, but "it's never this bad."

Since late August, Dr. O'Keefe and her husband have been staying in a Federal Emergency Management Agency-approved hotel two miles from her home, where "days of solid rain" led to 13 inches of water inside, totaling four cars and destroying  most of her furniture and many appliances.

"It's almost like a death — a death of your way of life, your home, all your nice things that you worked so hard to have," she recalled feeling after the worst of the storm hit.

Dr. O'Keefe is unsure when she'll be able to stay in her home again. An insurance adjustor was scheduled to come in mid-September, but rebuilding — and finding a place to stay — has been easy to find thanks to a supportive community.

She said she and her family have a safe place to stay thanks to her colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Hunsaker, who opened her home to her.  A former professor at the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston, Dr. O'Keefe said about 30 dental students surprised her on her front lawn on Labor Day, offering help to move debris and furniture.

Parishioners from her church community regularly drop off dinner.

"It's just been incredible the amount of support that we've seen," she said. "That's really been the saving grace for us."

Thankfully, Dr. O'Keefe's dental office was kept "high and dry," she said, and she's been able to see patients pretty regularly, feeling lucky to "get back to my routine, in a way."

Talking with others about their stories has also been comforting, she said.

"You cannot go anywhere in Houston and talk to anyone who wasn't touched in some way by all of this," she said.