NASHVILLE, TENN. — Crossing your fingers and hoping it never happens to you is not an effective disaster management plan.
Dr. Jill Burgess, owner of the Animal Hospital of West Nashville, hopes her story will convince other practice owners that disaster preparedness is key.
Last May, her practice, which she bought almost four years ago, was in the path of a 1,000-year flood in Nashville. The practice—the second-oldest in Tennessee, dating back to the mid-1920s—was destroyed by four to five feet of water. The clinic "filled up like a water balloon."
Fast-forward to November, and Burgess moved back in to her newly renovated practice after having to rebuild and replace nearly everything. She had practice insurance, but no flood insurance at the time of the flood.
Construction costs to rebuild after the flood totaled about $35,000, but Burgess says the larger cost came in replacing the $100,000 worth of inventory and equipment lost to the flood. She estimates she easily lost 75 percent of her inventory. Some equipment was lost to the flood, but other pieces that were salvaged are just now failing because of the exposure to moisture.
The economic loss will be most significant, she estimates, guessing it will add up to more than $200,000, though she won't know for certain for a few more months.
"As difficult as it is, be the one who approves what is thrown away or (delegate the duty) to very trusted and knowledgeable people," she says. "A bunch of stuff was thrown away that was still good, maybe just muddy."
Burgess is still finding things missing as she works to reorganize her practice.
"I still feel like I'm reinventing the wheel. We just have to rethink everything and, honestly, get the groove back. A lot of things you don't really truly recognize as missing until you're going along and need them," Burgess says. "It's really easy to get overwhelmed. It feels like you are going one step forward and two steps back most days."
Still, she says it's nice to be back in a clinic rather than working out of her home and a colleague's practice. Clients have been supportive, and she even has some new business. But as a solo-veterinary practitioner, Burgess says she finally learned what it means to "hit the wall."
"I just need a few more hours in the week," she says, adding that she realized she was at the fabled wall not long ago and talked to her staff about it. "There was something empowering about being able to put a name on it and verbalize it. I had been going in such a frantic frenzy for a while that I hadn't stopped to recognize where I was.
"I think it helped to realize that I need to pace myself a little bit and what the (staff) came up with, which was helpful, was to be closed a half day on Wednesdays."
There's still remnants of post-traumatic stress for Burgess and the rest of her staff. Sometimes, when heavy storms sweep in, she still finds herself worried. There have been times when she has rushed to the clinic, still in her pajamas, so she could be there with the animals in the buidling until the danger has passed.
Losing patients is still the part of the tragedy that weighs heaviest with her, Burgess admits.
"By far the biggest loss for me that day was the loss of those six precious lives," she says. "This is what I will carry in my heart forever. The rest is 'just stuff.' If I could change one thing, I would have gotten to the building in time to have saved them all, but it wasn't meant to be."
In her rebuilt clinic, Burgess had the kennels installed at a higher level to keep the animals safer if the flood waters ever return. She also keeps an ample number of carriers and leashes available for a quick exit, after having to stow cats in floating trash bins to keep them from drowning. During the flood, she had enough leashes and carriers on hand but they were difficult to find in the dark with four feet of water and floating debris.
"In a flood or other disaster-prone area, have a disaster plan in place for quick evacuation of your patients. Have your whole team trained about what to do in the event of a flood, fire or other natural disaster to assure the safety of your patients."
Other advice she offers veterinarians is to keep a comprehensive inventory list off-site, as well as patient records. Burgess ran a paperless office before the flood, so she was able to quickly recover her files. Now, she has all her records, not just patient records, backed up off-site.
Burgess says she also keeps her books and computers a little higher and has added flood insurance to her clinic. But all the insurance can't go back and replace what the 46-year-old practitioner lost.
"It's not a good place financially. I have to believe that we can make it into a positive venture from a profitability standpoint at some point, but it's going to be awhile," she says. "My concern is not about profitability. It is about high-quality medicine and excellent client service. The finances will follow as long as we remain true to our commitment to our patients and the people who love them."
Many donations of money and equipment were made to Burgess, and she also was able to secure a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration.
Still, on top of her initial investment in her practice and the renovations she made prior to the flood, she is saddled with debt from the latest rounds of repairs to her clinic, as well as costs to replace inventory and equipment. But the practice is thriving, despite the hardships Burgess faced.
"We are taking care of our patients and doing well," she says, adding she hopes others will take away the message from her story that "it's tough, and it's tiring, but you can do it.
"The alternative would have been to close our doors and walk away and that would have been unthinkable for us. To just turn around and walk away wasn't even an option."