Veterinary clinics cope with Hurricane Sandy's aftermath

Veterinary clinics cope with Hurricane Sandy's aftermath

New Jersey clinic works with clients by phone and social media due to road closures.
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Oct 30, 2012

Phone calls up and down the Atlantic seaboard went unanswered Tuesday morning. Some stalled in an eerie quiet before a spiritless automated voice warned that circuits were busy. Others sounded the harsh alarm of a busy tone. Worse still were the oblivious out-of-office messages that cheerfully recited operations as usual, as if unaware of the destruction Hurricane Sandy was leaving in her wake.

Call after call it remained the same. New York City veterinary clinics in lower Manhattan could not be reached, nor in Queens or Brooklyn. In New Jersey, too, practices in Atlantic City were unreachable. Then, a barely audible connection with Dickinson-McNeill Veterinary Clinic in Chesterfield, N.J., went through.

The welcome voice of Business Manager and Veterinary Assistant Brent McNeill Dickinson told DVM Newsmagazine that his practice and staff were OK. The loud, obtrusive buzz on the line had been consistent since phone service returned that morning. “There are a lot of wires down and trees down,” he said. “It’s pretty bad around the area. It’s touch and go.”

A quarter-mile from the clinic, Dickinson said, there were three telephone poles broken off from the ground. Although the clinic presently had power and phone service, a lot of people didn’t, he said: “We really lucked out.” Dickinson said there were a couple of branches down from the trees outside and standing water in the parking lot, “but nothing really major.”

The biggest problem for the clinic Tuesday morning was road conditions due to debris and downed power lines. Infrastructure crippled by the storm was widespread. The American College of Veterinary Surgeons canceled its Nov. 1-3 symposium in National Harbor, Md., as travel by car or plane was essentially paralyzed. “We don't have a lot of roads open to us, but we’re fielding calls and going from there,” Dickinson said. “It’s tough for people to get to us. That’s the biggest setback right now. We’re trying to be vets over the phone.”

Clients who didn’t have phone service were trying to communicate online using Facebook and Twitter. Dickinson said he didn’t expect any kind of normalcy until at least next week. “Our local utility company is saying it could be until Nov. 5 until everything is back and established,” he said.

Dickinson thought the incessant buzz on the line might be worsening. He wasn’t sure how long the clinic would stay open today. “Sometimes it’s good just to turn your lights on and be a beacon in town,” he said, noting that people had stopped by the clinic just wanting to talk or to get directions or information.

He’d just received a call from a man who found a kitten this morning. Though not an emergency, the man was concerned and was trying to bring it in but was facing road closures. “We’re sticking around to see if he gets through,” Dickinson said.

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Cell phone reception was non-existent--spotty at best--once everything went dark. “The lights went out around 8 p.m. (on Oct 29) and we watched the patients overnight,” says practice manager Terry Li. She and a veterinary assistant were manning their posts at West Village Veterinary Hospital as Sandy descended on New York City.

“We were sitting up by the windows and it was pitch black outside,” Li says. “It was scary. Thank God I brought flashlights.”

She and her coworkers at Downtown Veterinary Medical Hospital Group had done everything they could to prepare. Staff had taken appointments until 5 that afternoon. All patients and boarders were transferred to the West Village clinic and food and water were stocked in each of their four locations--all in lower Manhattan.

“We basically sat by the windows and watched people walking around in the streets,” Li says. “It was definitely insane. It was like a movie. It was surreal.”

A building on Eighth Avenue, just down from the clinic, made national news as its façade crumbled in the storm’s assault. Luckily, Li and the clinic’s patients remained unharmed. “The patients were actually all well-behaved,” she says. “There was a lot of meowing at one point.” She says the worst part was the darkness that engulfed the city. “We heard strange noises,” she says. “We weren’t sure where they were coming from. We were concerned about looting.” Thankfully, that never happened.

Li and her coworker tried to sleep, but that proved difficult, so they prepared the clinic for the morning. “We tried to keep the vaccines and stuff cold,” Li says. “We wrote out all the treatment plans because the computer was down.”

In the morning, Oct. 30, they kept right on working with no power and no phones. They learned that the Tribeca Soho location had taken on water and was without power, phone or Internet. The Seaport location was without power or water. The Battery Park location, which they’d feared would be hit worst, lost phones and Internet but not power. “It’s a miracle the clinic in Battery Park wasn’t affected at all,” Li says. The best news? All patients and staff had made it through the storm. Despite power and communication limitations, the West Village clinic started seeing patients that day as soon as it could. Veterinarians conducted appointments by daylight--using the same windows before which Li had sat watching the storm rip through the city. “We can help,” Li says. “We can do what we can. We’re working on bare minimum.”

Most clients who came in that day were in need of medications and food. Patients needing more extensive care were steered to more functional locations like Battery Park and Seaport. Seaport regained power and water relatively quickly, most likely a result of being near a hospital grid.

Li stayed late that day, securing patients and trying to stay in contact with clients through social media and the Internet. When she finally went home on the lower east side of Manhattan, “there were no lights whatsoever,” she says. The cab driver she’d been lucky enough to flag down told her, “If I had known I was coming down here I wouldn’t have taken you.” It was pitch black. She had no power, no water. She walked up nine flights of stairs in the dark. Other staff members faced the same.

As the week went on, roads opened and more and more staff returned to work. “Things are gradually coming back so we’re hopeful,” Li says. “Once the power comes back on, hopefully, everything will be fine.”