The Silence of the Birds
New Orleans 30 Months After Katrina: A Dentist’s Perspective
“I saw a bird today. It may sound like a small thing, but that is the first bird since [Hurricane Katrina]. We used to wake up to the sound of doves cooing or hummingbirds chirping. Hundreds of birds used to line up on the telephone wires behind our home on the lake, waiting for the grass to be cut or dragonflies to get stuck in the pool. We had three bird’s nests when we evacuated, and until today there were no birds. It was eerily quiet for the last 7 weeks....”
Those are the words of James Roethele, DDS, Accredited Member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD) and a lifelong New Orleans’ resident, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the AACD prepares to return to New Orleans for its 24th Annual Scientific Session, Excellence in Cosmetic Dentistry 2008, Dr. Roethele and his colleague and fellow New Orleanian Corky Willhite, DDS, were gracious enough to speak with Inside Dentistry about the impact of the disaster on their city and Southern Louisiana and the strides that have been taken in the subsequent 30 months.
Katrina was the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the third-strongest hurricane on record that made landfall in the United States. Katrina formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005, and crossed southern Florida as a moderate Category 1 hurricane, causing some deaths and flooding there, before strengthening rapidly in the Gulf of Mexico and becoming one of the strongest hurricanes on record [Category 5] while at sea. The storm weakened before making its second landfall as a Category 3 storm on the morning of August 29 in southeast Louisiana. The storm surge caused severe damage along the Gulf Coast, devastating the Mississippi cities of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula. In Louisiana, the federal flood protection system in New Orleans failed in more than 50 places. Nearly every levee in metro New Orleans breached as Hurricane Katrina passed east of the city, subsequently flooding 80% of the city and many areas of neighboring parishes for weeks.
At least 1,836 people lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina and in the subsequent floods, making it the deadliest US hurricane since 1928. The storm is estimated to have been responsible for $81.2 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in US history.
THEN ... AND NOW
“No communication was the worst part,” reflected Dr. Roethele. “Cell phone towers were down, everything was flooded, no electricity, no way to communicate with anybody unless you left town to go somewhere else and had a computer. And there was a smell, a stink in the air for a good 4 months—rotted houses, grass growing, but no activity. It was hot as can be from August through November. Everywhere you went everything was dead. Very quiet, very still, kind of eerie.”
Thirty months later, he says, “things are good, but they’re not back to normal by any means. There’s not a day that we don’t wake up and think about what’s happened and what we’ve been through. Just watching the news every night, we’ve got an extra 30 minutes of post-Katrina progress reports on two or three local stations. Last night we heard that around 80% of the population has returned to the entire New Orleans area, but New Orleans itself is at about 67% population-wise, and the hardest-hit areas are still at around 30%.”
Dr. Roethele lives in Kenner, which is 3 miles north of the airport between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. “They’ve been working on the levee behind my house since people were allowed back in this area, which was about 3 weeks after the storm,” he said. “The Army Corps of Engineers has been adding dirt and raising walls and putting up concrete walls, so its constant action and a lot of dust up there.”
In Dr. Roethele’s neighborhood, there are only a few FEMA trailers left, but driving to work, he passes through several areas that were extremely hard-hit by the storm. He described how houses are being raised by levels of 4 or 5 feet if they sustained damages in excess of 50% more than their total value. “Probably 20% of the homes are being raised; obviously families are not living there yet. About 10% of homes still have trailers out front with people living in them, or have multiple families on the lot,” he said. “People that were hardest hit in other areas will come to Kenner and live in the trailer while the families live in the homes.”
“I was out of work for 9 months while we were getting repairs done and dental equipment and computers and walls put back in,” Dr. Roethele said. “When we started working again, all we did for a year was emergencies and hygiene and a ton of periodontics—I would say 65% of our patients who were routine patients who would come in every 6 months had to go through scaling and root planing just to get back to health. So that’s all we did for a year: repairing crowns, broken teeth, root canals, and extractions. I did a lot of cosmetic dentistry before that, being an accredited member of the AACD since 2000 and chairman of the board for a couple years—after Katrina, I did none for almost 2 years. Just 2 months ago, we started seeing more routine patients and we’re starting to see a few more cosmetic cases. Nowhere near where we were, but more.”
For Dr. Willhite, an AACD Accredited Fellow whose practice is in Metairie, “technically one building out of the city limits of New Orleans,” the impact of the storm on his practice was somewhat different. The building housing his offices was a high-rise. It was shut down for 2 months after Katrina due to wind and water damage. “Fortunately, my offices are on the side of the building away from the wind, so as soon as the building reopened my practice was back up and running,” Dr. Willhite said. “It took about a month to get back up to speed in terms of patient numbers and such and at that point I started allowing other dentists whose offices had flooded to come in and use the office as well. So we had three offices practicing in here for a little over a year. I was very fortunate in that my office space wasn’t destroyed, just unavailable for 2 months, and even though a lot of our patients had left, we still had enough to keep us relatively busy.
A HELPING HAND
One of the groups that was extremely active in reaching out to dentists in stricken New Orleans was the AACD. Eric Nelson, director of public relations and marketing, explained: “In the wake of the hurricanes of 2005 [Hurricane Rita was included as well], the AACD’s Board of Directors quickly convened to form the AACD Charitable Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund in order to help our members affected in the Gulf Coast region. Donations were gathered from across the AACD membership and supporting corporations.” The fund is continuously open, Mr. Nelson noted, and is prepared to help in other natural disasters; it also contributed relief after the California wildfires in October 2007.
“The AACD was very helpful,” said Dr. Willhite. “Their Disaster Relief Fund helped pay for supporting those three dentists who were in the office. But it went beyond just the official disaster relief. All of my friends in the AACD were extremely generous. People donated supplies and money and helped keep those three dentists in here practicing and not having to buy supplies, etc. It was amazing, really, how concerned and generous my colleagues were.”
GO MARCHING IN
“I guess the hardest message to get across is: the city is okay. It’s okay to visit here,” said Dr. Roethele. “The food is as good as it ever was, everything is cleaner. Traffic is not nearly as bad, and the crime has moved to areas that are not where locals or tourists visit.”
Dr. Willhite agreed. “There’s absolutely no question that the city is ready for tourists, and tourists are back, almost as many as there were before Katrina, they’re having just as much fun, eating just as much good food as before. I think what people often don’t understand is that pretty much all the old parts of town—the French Quarter, the Garden District, and other tourist areas—were built before levees, so they’re on high ground and didn’t flood. As strong as the hurricane was, the wind damage caused only a fraction of the damage that the flooding did. Within a few months most buildings that had only wind damage were repaired. So all the historic parts of town where tourists go are really back to normal. The parts of the city that are below sea level, that were built after 1920 or so, are going to take a long time to come back, although there’s dramatic improvement in many of the areas.
“New Orleans has had problems with crime for years,” he continued. “But there are isolated pockets of it, and it’s very unlikely that a tourist would end up in an area where you’d have a high risk.
“On the whole, the city can still use plenty of help from government and volunteers, but everything that a tourist would normally do here to have fun is available again. New Orleans is definitely back!”
The AACD clearly believes that New Orleans is the place to be; in May, they will host their 24th Annual Scientific Session there, and they have unreserved high expectations. “We are thrilled to be headed to New Orleans for 2008,” Mr. Nelson said. “We hosted our Fall Board Meetings there in 2007; the city is back—better than ever! The restaurants, the food, the culture, the architecture, the shopping all make for one of America’s most unique conference destinations.
“The AACD’s conference is famous throughout dentistry for its unique energy, which emanates from the classrooms to the Exhibit Hall to the hotel bars—and New Orleans makes for an incredible backdrop,” Mr. Nelson continued. “All of AACD’s popular social events will have an authentic New Orleans feel, from the hors d’ouvres to the decor to live music throughout the week. We’ll even have our own AACD second-line parade!”
Nelson also noted that the AACD’s Accreditation continues to grow in size and scope, with now more than 1,000 dental professionals actively involved as candidates in the program. “The first step in AACD’s Accreditation program is successfully completing the Written Exam—which is only administered at our Annual Conference. So if you are ready to begin your path to excellence in cosmetic dentistry, your road begins in The Big Easy.” In addition, several Accreditation workshops, mentor/networking sessions, and the awarding of the newly Accredited members all take place at the conference. “Any dental professional interested in pursuing excellence in cosmetic dentistry can truly take their first step by joining thousands of their colleagues from around the world in New Orleans.”
The heart of the story of post-Katrina New Orleans goes beyond cosmetics, beyond dentistry—it is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. “People are much closer now,” said Dr. Roethele. “Everybody that were acquaintances before, whether at school or on the street or in the grocery store or at church, you see them now and you actually stop and speak. So there’s a lot of communication and a lot of camaraderie. When people go to visit downtown New Orleans, it’s probably the most appreciative city on the planet, because everybody is so glad to have visitors there: restaurants, vendors, stores, shops, everyone says, ‘Thank you for coming, thank you for visiting New Orleans.’”
“Everybody is still very tuned into the whole episode,” Dr. Willhite agreed. “If you haven’t seen somebody in awhile you have to trade Katrina tales. People are very interested in what happened to people in that time. For a year or a year and a half, most of every conversation was about Katrina. I think that’s finally starting to get back to normal and we’re finally starting to talk about other things again.”
This being New Orleans, one of the things that people never stopped talking about, even in the darkest moments after the storm, was the Saints. “They really helped revitalize us,” Dr. Roethele said. “We had a lot to hold on to even though we were all out of town, we were all rooting for them and when the Superdome opened for the Atlanta game on Monday Night Football, it was the start of something special.”
“The Saints were very inspiring,” Dr. Willhite added. “Psychologically it was a big boost. It does make a positive difference when people have something to be excited about.”
Drs. Roethele and Willhite, and Mr. Nelson all emphasized that most of what is going on in New Orleans today is both positive and exciting. “It’s a very uplifting story from a human spirit perspective,” Dr. Willhite said. “Tragedies have a tendency to bring out the best and the worst in people and certainly we saw all the worst on TV, but the best things you didn’t necessarily see in the media. It’s been a very powerful experience and extremely gratifying to know that people are so caring.”
The AACD in New Orleans
Donations to the AACD Charitable Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund are still being accepted at: www.aacd.com/foundation/donateonline.aspx.
As a show of goodwill and our support for the region, the AACD is offering a “Bayou Discount”—significantly discounted meeting tuition—to all its members in the Gulf Coast region who were in FEMA-designated disaster areas. Visit: www.aacd.com to learn more about Excellence in Cosmetic Dentistry 2008.
Learn more about AACD Accreditation at: www.aacd.com.