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New Jersey dentists lose office, gain hope after hurricane

Sea Bright, N.J.—Battered by a storm that wiped out the dental office he shared with his wife, Dr. Michele Brucker, Dr. Kevin Collier has every intention of turning his experience into something good.

In December, Dr. Collier and Dr. Brucker stood among the water-soaked remains of their office in this New Jersey borough of Monmouth County, located southwest of Long Island, N.Y. For more than a month after Hurricane Sandy deposited a storm surge and at least four feet of sand on the town, Sea Bright remained under a state of emergency. Without electricity, they spent their limited number of daytime hours sifting through what was left of their 27-year-old, five-operatory dental practice.


Recovery team: Dr. Michele Brucker and Dr. Kevin Collier have spent the past three months treating patients in the offices of colleagues. Their office remains under reconstruction.

The day after the hurricane (Oct. 30, 2012) they walked into town because the roads were impassable. From the outside, it didn't look too bad. Dr. Collier told his wife, "I think we're going to be OK." When they opened the door, it was devastating. "We noticed a line on the walls four feet from the floor. This was the high water line. Every surface was coated with sludge. We opened drawers of files and supplies that were still filled with filth and water."

Destruction from Hurricane Sandy hit the New Jersey shore counties like Monmouth the worst, accounting for 10 of the storm's 40 fatalities. In Sea Bright (population 2,000), the storm surge shattered the town's business district. To date, 90 percent of the town's businesses are closed. Fifty-six properties are condemned.


Post-Sandy: Drs. Brucker and Collier faced this scene when they were allowed back into their office.

"Sea Bright is a coastal community that sees a higher population during the summer months but has grown quite a bit over the last 20 years," said Dr. Collier. "It's a little slip of land between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Navesink River to the west. Our office is about 100 yards from the river and 200 yards from the ocean. When the storm hit, waves were breaking from ocean to river." 

A 1992 storm caused only minor water damage but that was enough to compel them to move everything in their office three feet off the floor. Sandy delivered four feet of water.

"We had Hurricane Irene last year, and as much as they touted it as a huge storm, it kind of limped through here. We had no flood water in the office. I think it gave us a false sense of security," he said. "Everything that we put up three feet had floated, tipped over and was contaminated with class III water, which has all the contaminants in it: benzene, gasoline and diesel fuel, human waste. It was all coating this beautiful office that we had completely renovated in 2007."

Dr. Collier said the borough Police Chief John Sorrentino let them into their office a day after Sandy.

"He said, 'I'll drop you off; get as much as you can,' so we grabbed boxes of charts and drawers from cabinets. They were soaked with everything you can imagine. The top layers were getting wet, too, because the charts underneath were wicking water. Everything was contaminated but we had to save what we could."

The results were discouraging. Some charts could be saved, radiographs could not, and much of the equipment purchased in 2007 was unusable.

"The new chairs were gone. There was water up to the cushions. We could pay for reupholstery and new mechanicals, but we'd be within $1,000 of a new chair. Plus, we would have been trying to rehabilitate something with no guarantee of it working."


Cleaning up:  "Every time we turn around, we're faced with this chaos," said Dr. Kevin Collier, about the couple's efforts to restore their dental practice.
There was so much destruction in the immediate area that making contact with patients was difficult. Many patients were in the middle of necessary treatment and reaching them became a priority.

"So many were displaced from their homes by the hurricane. We composed a letter and conveyed our sympathy and explained that we would be working out of two offices on a limited schedule to serve their needs, especially for emergency care," Dr. Collier said. They followed that with an automated voicemail message to let patients know they would be there. "Many responded to the messages. They were very appreciative." 

Rebuilding is still in progress, but the experience is making the dentists rethink their future, including the way they practice dentistry.

"There is a lot to be said about the human spirit and the will to survive and move on. I would love for someone else to learn from my mistakes," said Dr. Collier. "We need to do things in smarter ways. We are professionals, we are health care providers, but we also need to be smart business people. We have to think about ways to preserve our businesses. It's been a hard lesson for us."

The last thing that Dr. Collier did before evacuating the office was to set the main computer system's server atop a fireplace mantle. Being able to keep it safe from harm has now made digitizing patient records an imperative. They're working with a company to freeze-dry salvaged records and gamma irradiate them to make them usable again.

"Digitizing and off-site storage of information is something everyone should think about. It's something we should have done long ago," he said.

What has been a boost to their spirits is the outpouring of support from so many in the dental community. Arthur Meisel, executive director of the New Jersey Dental Association, has been in frequent contact and offered guidance on legal issues. The American Academy of Implant Dentistry has reached out to offer assistance. Dr. Richard Mercurio of Lincroft, N.J., and Dr. Carlos Meulener of Little Silver, N.J., with whom Dr. Collier has taken continuing education courses, have opened their offices for Drs. Brucker and Collier to use. Larry Cohen of Benco Dental, the dental supply company, who had been through a similar natural disaster years earlier in Pennsylvania, made the Colliers a priority. Classmates from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey/New Jersey Dental School called to see what they could do.

"Dentists we've met maybe once in our lives, and ones we've never met, have extended offers for us to use their offices to see patients," said Dr. Collier. "We would be out of business if it weren't for these people. We are blessed in this regard."

There's still an enormous amount of red tape for Dr. Brucker and Dr. Collier to sift through. Their landlord is working hard to get them back in business, and they have applied for an ADA Foundation disaster grant. Small Business Association funding is very slow moving and complicated. They received a grant from NJDA in January (see story, this page), but also learned their practice interruption insurance will not cover a civil authority action like that which shut down Sea Bright after the hurricane.

"We're moving forward," said Dr. Collier. "We have some trepidations about going back to Sea Bright, but hope to be back in our office soon. Numerous reports state that this could be a new weather pattern that we're facing. We have had two major storms in the last two years. If we go back and get reestablished, we're concerned for the safety of our location as well as the cost of flood and practice interruption insurance. Sea Bright will seriously have to consider how it will allow people to rebuild. New flood elevations have been proposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency but they say it will take 18-24 months before a final decision is made.

"Our intent is to go back. However, I'm doing that with an understanding of considering alternatives. We've got four years left on the lease in this building. We can't afford to do this another time. It's physically, emotionally and financially draining. But, we will continue to move forward."