BELLE MEADE, TENN. — The Sunday morning deluge continued unrelenting as two clinic staffers arrived at the Animal Hospital of West Nashville to check on boarded patients.
They had little idea then that the rains would trigger an event now called a 1,000-year flood.
But the waters were rising, fast.
When Dr. Jill Burgess first got the call from her employees that the flood had reached her newly renovated clinic, she rushed to help. By the time she arrived, she had to wade through flood waters just to reach the hospital.
"I had no way of knowing it was going to be anything like this," says Burgess, owner of the Animal Hospital of West Nashville. "I fought against the current, and my two assistants were there on the side of the building, and they were absolutely terrified."
More than $244 million has been approved by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help rebuild the Nashville area in the wake of the May floods, which FEMA says impacted more than 21,000 homes and almost 6,000 businesses. Animal Hospital of West Nashville was the only veterinary practice known to have been impacted by the floods, according to several veterinarians in the area.
The worst feeling, however, for Burgess came when she first arrived and saw the water level rising above the reception desk through the front door of her clinic.
"My heart just sank. I knew anybody inside bottom cages was already drowned at that point," Burgess says, adding there were 20 cats and dogs in the hospital that morning.
Unable to open the front door, Burgess climbed over a back wall into the clinic courtyard. The water was still high but without a current. Putting her adrenaline to use, she was able to force the back door open, causing water to rush out of the building.
Burgess and staffers reached the cat room first, where the water was halfway up the cages. Without carriers to put the cats in, she grabbed trash cans and anything else that would float to offer the animals protection from the flood waters. When checking the low-level bank of cages where smaller dogs and some clinic cats were kept, her worst fears were realized. There, she retrieved the bodies of six animals — two clinic cats, two cats being boarded by a clinic employee, and a young Yorkshire terrier boarded by some new clients and an older Shih Tzu owned by long-time clients of the hospital.
Burgess still chokes up when talking about the animals that were lost, but at the time there were still a lot more animals to get out of the clinic. She and her team headed back to the kennels to see how the larger dogs fared.
"It was really dark back in the kennel. We swam through water full of debris and furniture, and when we got back to the dog room, there was four to five feet of water," she recalls. "I had dogs in five of the six rooms ... and those babies were just treading water, and everybody was tired. You could tell they were just so scared and exhausted."
She got the dogs to the top of the kennel run, where they were safe until she could evacuate them later from the building.
Burgess, her two assistants and two friends who had followed her to the hospital formed a human chain and used two carriers they found to start moving some of the animals out.
"They put four cats in one carrier and three in another," says Burgess, recalling the cries of the cats as they put them on the flat roof of the hospital — in the pouring rain but safe from the floodwaters. "I knew at least they were up out of harm's way."
With everyone's cell phones lost or damaged in the murky waters inside the clinic, Burgess says they were lucky to get the attention of some passing police officers. Emergency services were strained, but within an hour, some good Samaritans showed up in a boat. They tied themselves to ropes and were able to reach the front porch to help Burgess and her workers to safety.
"We were basically totally obliterated," Burgess says. "I had four or five feet of water through my clinic front to back. The current was so strong that it had pushed in part of my front wall, and the clinic basically burst like a water balloon."
When the waters receded
The rain tapered off, and after a few more hours, water levels receded enough so that Burgess could get back into the clinic to retrieve the animals that were safe, but still stranded, inside the hospital.
In fact, a man in a neighboring office building found the dogs above the kennel runs. He let Burgess know that he had taken them to a safe refuge, outside the city, and housed them in a barn.
Burgess retrieved the remaining cats and ferret from the roof and brought them back to her home, which she shares with her fiancé, seven dogs and 12 cats. Most of her boarders were picked up by their owners that night, and Burgess says she was lucky to have had a paperless office with her records stored off-site. She was able to access all her client records pretty quickly, except for the Yorkie that died.
"Both clients (of the pets that died) were upset, understandably — one to the point of anger," Burgess says. The angry Shih Tzu owners softened after Burgess cremated its remains and brought the dog home, explaining how hard the day had been for everyone.
"I just started talking about that day and what happened, and I fully expressed to them as best I could how the loss of those six lives [affected me]," she recalls with pain in her voice. "That has affected me more profoundly than anything else. There's a hole in my heart. If I could just get back in there and save my babies ..."
Just as difficult was talking to the owners of the newer patient, the Yorkie puppy. The owners were new to the United States from Russia, and they showed up at her clinic the next day to collect their dog, completely unaware of the flooding and the devastation the hospital faced.
"That was absolutely the worst and the hardest thing," Burgess says. "I just pray I never have to go through that ever again."
The troubles didn't end as the flood waters receded, though. Burgess now faces the daunting task of rebuilding her practice — a business she has owned for only three years.
"I have a tremendous amount of debt just from the initial purchase," Burgess says, explaining her purchase debt was further exacerbated by a full expansion and renovation about two years ago. "It was beautiful. Everyone said we were one of the prettiest practices in Nashville, and of course, that's all washed away."
Now, all the renovations have been ripped out, since the entire hospital had to be taken back down to its studs — all 3,300 square feet of it.
"I'm just going to have to rebuild everything," Burgess says, estimating the construction costs alone at about $130,000.
Flood insurance is not offered in Nashville, she says. The only thing covered in her regular insurance will be some of the practice's furniture.
In addition to the construction cost, Burgess will have to purchase all new equipment. Some of the medical equipment lost in the flood can be fixed, but most will have to be replaced to the tune of at least $250,000 — and that's just so Burgess' practice can get up and running again. A few items, like an older-model ultrasound Burgess used a lot, will be difficult to find and replace.
After a few attempts, Burgess says she did gain approval for a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration, but loan payouts can't be dispersed until Congress passes legislation for a national flood insurance program — and there's no telling when that will happen.
With a closing date as close as a few weeks and as far off as a few months, Burgess is in limbo, working out of a nearby practice and her home. It will take her five or six months to become operational again once she gets funding. She's trying to get a contract to start work while she waits for the loan payout, but, for now, Burgess will have to stick to a makeshift hospital at home, complete with a full lab in her laundry room.
Burgess, 46, is a native of Nashville and worked for 11 years as a certified medical technologist before turning to veterinary medicine. She earned her DVM from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in 2003 and began working at her current practice — then called Greene Animal Hospital — in April 2006. She bought the practice in July 2007 when the owner retired, and renovated and expanded and changed the clinic name the following year.
Clients as a whole have been very supportive during the ordeal, she says, and the clinic set up a PayPal account on its website because so many people wanted to donate to help her rebuild. About $20,000 has been raised so far.