Wake of the Flood

The devastation wrought in Houston by Hurricane Harvey affected every corner of America’s fourth-largest city. Its dental community was certainly not spared nature’s wrath — but thanks to tireless work and boundless generosity, Houston’s dentists are at last emerging from the waters, defiant and determined to rebuild.

By Mellanie Perez

EARLY ON THE MORNING of Monday, August 28, Dr. Lori Logan, a family and cosmetic dentist in the Houston suburb of Cypress, Texas, got a telephone alert from Eyeon Integrated Systems, the company that monitors her security alarm: The motion detector in her practice had gone off.

Dr. Logan’s weekend had consisted of little else but hunkering down, as Hurricane Harvey made landfall Friday night near Rockport, about 200 miles southwest of her practice, which itself is just northwest of central Houston. By what would ordinarily be the Monday-morning rush, many of the city’s main roads were flooded. Dr. Logan’s only thought when she got the call from Eyeon: “Well, it’s not a burglar.”

In the sense of “one that violates another’s private property,” though, that’s exactly whose motion was setting off the detector. Her office, like many properties within three miles of Cypress Creek in northwest Houston, had already taken on a foot of water. A lamp high on a table had already taken a dive into the pool. The air compressor, circuit board and main console of her high-tech dental chairs were submerged. All office paperwork — continuing-education courses, the history of her license procurement, all of it — was soaked through.

The previous Thursday, a day before Harvey made landfall, Dr. Logan’s IT company, Citrus Technologies, sent her a newsletter detailing steps it advised her to take to protect her data and hardware in advance of the storm. Dr. Logan — whose office was in a floodplain that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had certified as likely to flood just once every 500 years — spent two hours that day and the next doing what other dentists in the area were doing. She lifted her five computers and server to higher spots, thinking back to some notorious weather only 16 months earlier: “Since we didn’t flood in the April 2016 ‘Tax Day Flood,’ I had a false sense of hope that it wouldn’t happen again,” she says. “I thought, ‘We probably don’t even need to be doing this.’ ” With that memory still vivid, she hung up the phone with Eyeon Systems feeling thankful for having had the foresight to place her $100,000 CAD/CAM machine on a countertop just before she left for home on Friday. Still, the chat, however brief, had filled her with foreboding. “Since I got that call, I couldn’t relax,” she says. “I thought, ‘OK, this isn’t good.’ ”

WHAT HURRICANE HARVEY wrought when it pounded greater Houston between Friday, August 25, and Wednesday, August 30, beggars belief: Some 1.2 trillion gallons of water fell, submerging America’s fourth-largest city and its environs in up to 51 inches of rain. More than 135,000 properties were destroyed, with some 37,000 families displaced. Eighty-two people died as a direct result of the storm’s merciless downpours. Included in those figures, according to data compiled by the American Dental Association, were some 3,850 area dental professionals, who lost not only pricey equipment and important information but, in some cases, their entire practice to the rising waters. Making matters worse: More than 70 percent of affected dentists lacked flood insurance, especially those in the communities of Kingwood, Spring and Clear Lake. The primary reason: According to FEMA’s Harris County 500-year floodplain maps — like the one Dr. Logan was purported to be able to rely on — the likelihood of a given dental practice taking on water was, supposedly, exceedingly slim.

Damage to the dental community (and the medical community more broadly, of course) was twofold going forward: both in the number of dentists displaced and the fact that those still able to practice were able to see fewer patients — many of whom were themselves displaced and moving dental care, both routine and more substantial, to the back burner.

As was the case throughout East Texas, though, help was swift to arrive once the torrents had lessened, thanks to the numerous government and dental-industry organizations that had gotten to work, weather forecasts in hand, during the week leading up to the storm’s arrival. The ADA Foundation revised its Emergency Disaster Grant program, designed to provide immediate support of up to $2,000 apiece for dentists with urgent personal needs such as food, water, clothing and shelter. The Texas Dental Association (TDA) put its board of directors on alert to monitor grant applications for immediate relief. Meanwhile, a number of companies nationwide — Benco Dental among them — led the charge to expedite shipments of needed goods. Joanne Stitzer, Benco’s associate chief customer advocate, had a dedicated customer-service e-mail address, harveyhelp@benco.com, which was active the first business day after the hurricane struck.

ONLY ON TUESDAY, August 29, at 9 p.m., making her way fitfully through neighborhood back roads, was Dr. Lori Logan able at last to reach her practice. In the 12 years she had occupied her office, in a strip shopping center on Barker Cypress Road, it had never taken her longer than 15 minutes to get there, regardless of traffic. That night it took 40. “It was a little scary,” she says. “A lot of the streets leading up to [my practice] were dangerous.”

Along with three of her staffers who had braved journeys of their own, she entered her building, prepared for the worst. The water, thankfully, had receded, though puddles and damp muck remained everywhere. Those who have been through it say you never forget the smell of a flood — that of stale, pungent mold and mildew. Everything was soaked. Dr. Logan ended up losing all flooring and sheetrock, her five computers, her server (though she had wisely backed it up), all her dental chairs, the air compressor — all the things, in other words, she could scarcely work without.

One selfless concern loomed above all others: I won’t be able to open. “It’s an awful feeling when you just can’t be there for your patients,” she says. Her subsequent considerations: “to figure out how to keep my employees going, and our business, when we no longer had an office to work out of. Where to set up the server. How to contact patients. How to divide and conquer all the duties that needed to be done.”

On September 3, nine days after Harvey made landfall, Benco’s new customer-support inbox received a message from Dr. Logan: “Dear vendors, business partners and friends, my entire office was flooded and I lost a lot of expensive dental equipment. . . . Dentists affected by the
hurricane have to replace all floors, sheetrock, lower cabinetry and dental equipment and are unable to see patients. Some have lost their offices entirely. . . . Any help at all will be appreciated. . . . If you know of other dentists affected by the hurricane, you are welcome to pass along my contact information. . . . I’m willing to help in the form of advice as I may be a few steps ahead of those who haven’t even been able to get to their practices to assess the damage.”

In Pittston, Pennsylvania, at Benco’s home office, Joanne Stitzer conferred with the company’s South District Service Manager, Scott Smith, to get a dozen service technicians on the road. Between September 4 and 8, the techs visited more than 100 dental practices in eastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana. The Bayou State hadn’t attracted as much attention as Houston, but parts of it had been hit by up to 22 inches of rain.

The techs assessed equipment with the Benco Emergency Site iPad app, donated supplies and helped tear away sheetrock and move furnishings. “We had our territory representatives reach out to offices to check in with them,” Stitzer says. “The team was just driving through town seeing where they could go. And that was the challenge: At the very beginning there were only certain parts you could get to.”

The service techs’ news for Dr. Logan was grim: Every last bit of her equipment would have to be replaced. What followed was less grim: a true display of determination. A contractor showed up the next day. “We had to get our sheetrock done, our paint, our floors,” Dr. Logan says. “They were working day, night and weekends.”

THE FIRST THING Dr. Logan did was rent a storage pod from a facility fortuitously located in her rear parking lot, where she housed what furniture and other goods could be even partially salvaged. In the meantime, Citrus Technologies set up her server stations — in her home. “One of our first goals was to communicate with our patients,” Dr. Logan says of the unorthodox arrangement. “We would have meetings either at my house or in someone’s SUV. There was nowhere else to be.” Throughout, financial questions gnawed at her: For however long she’d be unable to see patients, she lacked the means to bring in revenue to cover the practice overhaul, expenses for which were mushrooming.

Her landlord helped by covering the full cost of the floors, walls and damage to the roof of her one-story practice. Soon small acts of kindness trickled in; then they seemed to occur as fast as the rain had fallen: “One of my labs, I don’t even know how they knew, but I got a letter in the mail saying they’d credited my entire bill,” Dr. Logan says.

For roughly three weeks, Dr. Logan worked out of nearby Cypress Lakes Dental with Dr. Satvika Pinnamaneni, who offered her two rooms, and with Dr. Paula Herber at Towne Dental and Orthodontics. Aside from financial assistance available via the ADA, TDA and the Greater Houston Dental Society (GHDS), these gracious acts helped, particularly given the innumerable other claims directed to FEMA’s Federal Disaster Loan program, administered by the Small Business Administration.

“One thing I’ll tell you, which I think is critical to understanding the impact on the dental community in this market, is that they could not treat customers because they’d lost their equipment, and these customers were also displaced,” says Michael McDonnell, Benco’s regional manager for Dr. Logan’s area. “Dentists I talked to felt the impact of their patients not showing up and canceling appointments. It was a 360 effect on the market.”

South of Cypress, in Houston’s Energy Corridor — the business district home to the world’s largest energy companies — Dr. Mark Gray, a friend of Dr. Logan’s, pulled in just 30 percent of his usual revenue in the month following Harvey. Myriad energy companies, even some in high-rises, flooded and relocated their employees to offices in downtown Houston, some 20 miles east. Dr. Gray worked out of his friend Dr. Thomas Inman’s office in the city’s Town and Country area, using four of Dr. Inman’s 10 chairs. Dr. Gray had had seven chairs in his office, where he had practiced for 15 years before Harvey flooded it with two feet of water.

Neither Dr. Gray nor Dr. Logan had flood insurance, and when Dr. Gray finally was able to get into his office, everything he was able to salvage fit in the back seat of his car. “They tell me a build-out for my office, if I put it back the same way I had it, typically runs about $140 per square foot, and I had 4,200 square feet,” he says. “That, plus to equip all seven rooms, we’re looking at something close to $700,000.” (Dealing with even just one inch of water in a given property can cost more than $20,000, according to the National Flood Insurance Program administered by FEMA.) But it had been 15 years since he’d moved into this office, and in those 15 years it had never flooded. “We’ve lost our office — that’s our term, we’ve lost it. But we’re going to get it back. We’re going to rebuild.”

Harvey also occasioned a great deal of debate about the accuracy of floodplain maps and designations. “A lot of the Houston area is not an identified flood area by FEMA,” Larry Larson, a senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers, told the Houston Chronicle.

Would Dr. Gray choose to have flood insurance now? “I suspect that I will,” he says, with more than a touch of gallows humor. “Although I don’t think it covers as much as you’d think.” Flood-insurance policies vary, but according to Bankrate, the average annual premium is $660 and typically covers damage up to $250,000. Dr. Logan’s new policy costs more than that; after conferring with her insurance agent at Van Dyke Rankin, she settled for a policy that covers damages of up to $500,000.

Both Drs. Logan and Gray offer a host of reasons why they chose to stay put in their location — and in their city, for that matter — in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. For Dr. Gray, it was simple: “It took me over a year to find a place 15 years ago, and it never occurred to me not to rebuild in the same place.” For Dr. Logan, it was more a question of timing: Not only had she renewed her lease just a few months before, but she had also signed a contract the Thursday before the hurricane — one day before landfall in Texas — for a 1,000-square-foot expansion to her 2,200-square-foot space. It all pointed to another decade on Barker Cypress Road.

Dr. Logan is now back up and running. The final cabinetry work is complete, and a stream of loyal patients resumed, at a slow but steady pace. “There are things that are just going to be a process,” she says, philosophically. “Things like the front desk drawer that won’t close because the wood is warped. We haven’t started that project yet, but we will.” When does she expect to feel fully normal once more? “When is the whole city going to be back to normal?” she parries. “I can’t say. But we’re getting there.”

MELLANIE PEREZ is a writer in Houston. This is her first piece for Incisal Edge.

Remembering Agnes’s Fury

ALTHOUGH ITS EASTERN AREAS are relatively close to the Atlantic Ocean, Pennsylvania is not typically a place that comes to mind when one thinks of hurricanes. In June 1972, however, central and eastern Pennsylvania bore witness to the power of Hurricane Agnes — at the time the costliest hurricane ever to hit the United States.

“It destroyed the entire downtown of Wilkes-Barre, including Benco Dental’s headquarters,” remembers Larry Cohen, Benco’s Chairman and Chief Customer Advocate. “For a small, regional company without insurance, losing everything nearly meant going out of business. It was only through lots of hard work, some luck, the kindness of strangers and the support of the federal government that we survived and thrived.”

Agnes’s devastation was legion: More than 100,000 people were driven from their homes by the rain; the first floor of the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg, some 105 miles southwest of Benco’s home office, was inundated. Pennsylvania wasn’t the only place that felt the wrath of Agnes — New York, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and portions of the southeast were affected as well — but the toll was heaviest in the Keystone State, with 50 fatalities and more than $2.3 billion in damage (nearly $14 billion in today’s money).

“When a practice or laboratory is the victim of a flood, fire or similar calamity,” Cohen says, “our job is to help — to get your practice back up and running.”