In the hearing care community, as in the nation as a whole, Hurricane Katrina inflicted terrible loss and suffering on those in its path. Yet, it also inspired a remarkable outpouring of generosity and compassion from hundreds of individuals and organizations around the country who reached out to give hearing care and other needed support to victims of the storm.
A full 3 weeks after Katrina pounded the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama with 140-mile-an-hour winds and torrential rains that produced flooding of biblical proportions in New Orleans and surrounding areas, no accurate assessment of the storm's impact on people and institutions in hearing healthcare was possible. In the hardest hit areas, few people could be reached by phone or e-mail, either because service was disrupted, practitioners could not get to work, or, in many cases, they had no office or home left to be reached at.
The major professional organizations tried to contact their members, but with limited success. For example, as of September 17, the American Academy of Audiology (AAA) had been unable to reach about 100 of the approximately 225 members located somewhere near Katrina's path. In most cases, communication difficulties seemed to be the problem. As this article went to press on September 19, there had been no reports of storm-related injuries or fatalities among hearing healthcare providers.
DESTRUCTION WAS WIDESPREAD
But if the extent of the disaster could not be measured, it was clear from interviews with people in the hurricane area who could be contacted that Katrina wreaked havoc on the lives of a great many hearing professionals.
One was Michael Seidemann, PhD, who reported that his private practice in Kenner, LA, just west of New Orleans, suffered heavy flood damage. He hopes to reopen in a few weeks, but will need to replace walls, furniture, and equipment. Seidemann also suffered flood damage to his home, and was forced to move in with his son. Adding to his problems, he said, was that 15 file drawers full of legal documents related to his work in forensic audiology were destroyed by water.
Seideman said, “It's an unbelievably devastating experience. However, it is very difficult to complain when you see so many others whose suffering is much, much worse.”
Across the Mississippi River in Biloxi, MS, George “Jordy” Pitalo Jr., a hearing instrument specialist, said, “We were wiped out completely.” When the storm lifted, the building that housed the dispensing practice begun by his father 24 years ago as well as the family's drug store was gone. Pitalo, whose house escaped major damage, said that the drug store would be back in business at a temporary location in October. He also hopes to reopen the hearing aid practice, though all his files and equipment are gone. Despite that, he said, “We'll take care of all our clients.” He added that GN ReSound, one of his primary suppliers, “has bent over backward” to make sure his customers get their hearing needs met.
The hurricane was especially devastating for Karen Slater, AuD, and her family. A concrete slab is all that remains of their home in Pass Christian, MS. In the first 2 weeks after Katrina hit, she and her three young sons spent nights in five different houses before moving into a small apartment vacated by a friend who left town in search of work. Despite her ordeal, by mid-September Slater had returned to her job with Coastal ENT in Gulfport, MS. Three of Coastal's five offices were closed because of the hurricane and another of the audiologists employed was also homeless.
Despite losing everything that wouldn't fit into her car, Slater is determined to stay. She said, “This was a beautiful, beautiful area, and it will be again.”
LSU facility moving temporarily
Probably the largest hearing healthcare institution impacted by Katrina was the Lousiana State University Health Science Center in New Orleans, which is home to the Kresge Hearing Research Lab. Since the city around it had been evacuated, the facility remained closed through mid-September. But, while the Health Science Center suffered some water damage, Robert Turner, PhD, professor in LSU's Department of Communication Disorders, was hopeful that the department offices on the ninth floor escaped harm.
Turner praised the LSU administration, which, he said, “moved quickly to make arrangements for us to move the rest of the semester to Baton Rouge.” He added, “We are continuing with our audiology program,” including admitting new students for the fall semester.
Unlike many of his colleagues at LSU whose houses were severely damaged or destroyed in the hurricane, Turner said his home in Mandeville, LA, north of Lake Pontchartrain, suffered only minor damage. “I got lucky,” he said. Looking ahead, he added, “I don't think anybody really knows what's going to happen. The people who live in New Orleans have such a love and affinity for the city that they'll do anything to get it up and running.”
Lynn Creel, MS, who lives in Kenner and owns a private practice in Metairie, LA, just north of New Orleans, expressed similar sentiments: “We want people to know we're a strong group of people down here and we will weather this storm and be there to serve the community.”
Creel, who left the area before Katrina struck, recalled how it felt to follow the crisis from a distance. “The uncertainty of not knowing is so stressful. For 6 days, I didn't know if I had a house or not. Then you find out that you do and most of the people around you don't. It's such emotional devastation.”
Although her home survived, wind and water took a considerable toll. Nevertheless, she said, “I consider myself extra fortunate because we live across the street from the levee, but in an area where the levee held up.”
Her office was physically unscathed, and she was able to resume seeing patients by mid-September. But she anticipates other hardships: “I believe we're going to see a severe financial impact on our practice.” Still, she said, “I'm going to continue to employ my audiologists and we will make it.”
General open but struggling
General Hearing Instruments of Harahan, LA, the only hearing aid manufacturer in the New Orleans area, reopened its doors soon after the storm despite water damage and a roof that needs replacement. However, the company was without Internet, Federal Express, or mail service, and it took over 2 weeks to get its telephones working. As a result, said Roger Juneau, president of the company, “Things are moving very, very slowly,”
“I'm 50 years old,” said the native Louisianan, “and I've never seen disaster of this magnitude.” He added, “It is just amazing how vulnerable you really are.” At press time, 3 of the company's 30 employees were still unaccounted for. Being out of commission just as plans were being made to release a new product line has set the company back, the president said. But, he added, “We know we will be back. We are a family.”
Assessing the situation in the third week after the storm, Ed Desporte, MS, General Hearing's director of product development and quality assurance, said, “Business as we know it has pretty much stopped. I'm in quality assurance, but there's really nothing here to quality assure at this time.” He said that the skeleton crew that was able to get to work was taking care of what it could. “Everybody wears a lot of hats,” he said, adding, “We are alive and we are well and hopefully we will be up and running next week.”
Kim Goudreau, MS, the company's director of customer service, described her feelings in the wake of the storm: “One day I cry and then the next day I think we're going to build this company to be better than it ever was. One day you feel so strong and the next day you think, ‘How am I ever going to do this?’”
She added that the devastation all around has helped her put her own situation in perspective. Despite the problems at work and wind damage to her home in St. Charles Parish, Goudreau said, “I am blessed. My husband and my son and I are safe and we have a house that is standing.”
Despite losses, survivors help
Over and over hearing professionals expressed similar sentiments. Regardless of their own hardships, they turned their sympathy and attention toward others.
For example, Ross Sowell Deavours, AuD, who opened a dispensing practice in Ocean Springs, MS, last March, didn't let the fact that the downstairs of her house was flooded and the dock gone prevent her from going to her office, which was intact. Initially, she spent much of her time trying to reach patients to see how they were and if they needed hearing help. She said she was especially anxious to find out about one patient in her 80s—“a real Southern lady”—since when she drove to her house she found only a pile of bricks.
Deavours, who worked in another practice in the area before starting her own, said that many clients came to her office just to make sure she was all right. Others needed replacements for hearing aids damaged or lost in the hurricane. Taking advantage of Starkey Hearing Foundation's donation of hearing aids to hurricane victims, she provided a free fitting to one patient who was so grateful that she burst into tears.
The destruction around her and seeing her sister's house in ruins has made her own problems seem small by comparison, Deavours said. She added, “In the greater scheme of things, we were merely inconvenienced.”
Might she leave the area? “No,” said Deavours, “this is home.” However, she is concerned about the future. With so many people left homeless and without work, she is unsure how the local economy and, specifically, the market for audiology services will hold up. She asked, “Will people whose roof blew off replace their roof or buy hearing aids?” Despite the probable answer, Deavours said, “We're optimistic. We're here for the long haul.”
Harry Hibbert, BC-HIS, and his son, C. Joseph Hibbert, AuD, practice far enough north of the gulf—their four offices are in Jackson, Natchez, and Vicksburg, MS—to escape significant damage, but they are seeing refugees from Katrina. Harry told of one evacuee they are helping who lost her hearing aids, has no money, and can't hear well enough to interview for a new job. The Hibberts have spread the word through local agencies that they will provide free services to hurricane victims.
HEARING INDUSTRY RISES TO THE OCCASION
If the devastation wreaked by Katrina on hearing professionals and their patients was unprecedented, so too was the generous response that it generated from every segment of the hearing healthcare community.
Starkey pledges $40 million
The Starkey Hearing Foundation and Starkey Laboratories made a combined donation of $40 million in hurricane relief efforts. This included $15 million from the Hear Now program to provide free hearing aids to hearing-impaired victims of Katrina.
William Austin, founder and CEO of Starkey Laboratories, said that all hurricane survivors would be eligible for free hearing aids and related audiologic services, even if they had not lost hearing aids in the storm. He said, “They have enough challenge in their life without trying to go forward with hearing problems.” Austin added, “We intend to provide as much care as necessary to help families begin their recovery processes.”
Austin and eight other Starkey hearing professionals spent September 9–11 in the Houston Convention Center, where many refugees from New Orleans were being sheltered. There they took impressions and fitted Starkey hearing aids on hundreds of people.
In addition, Starkey Laboratories will provide $25 million through its Help America Hear Project to re-establish hearing healthcare businesses that were destroyed by the storm. Jerry Ruzicka, president of Starkey, said, “We want to do our part to help professionals in our industry provide their patients with the immediate care they need.”
For more information on obtaining help, hearing professionals can call Starkey Labs at 800/328-8602 or e-mail katrina_relief@;starkey.com. Persons who need hearing care because of the disaster should contact the Starkey Hearing Foundation at 866/354-3254.
Many companies contribute
The industry as a whole responded generously to the crisis. The Hearing Industries Association (HIA) asked members to join it in supporting Hear2Care, a volunteer program of Self Help for Hard of Hearing People (SHHH). The program is providing hearing screenings, hearing aid supplies and repairs, cochlear implant supplies, hearing assistive technology, and emotional support to hard-of-hearing people affected by Katrina. Further information is available at www.hearingloss.org.
Many individual companies launched their own efforts to help:
- v Phonak US established a hearing aid bank for hurricane victims who had lost their hearing aids. Practitioners in the Southeast interested in providing hearing aids free to these patients can call 800/777-8333, ext. 5141.
- v GN ReSound contacted customers affected by the storm offering to help them rebuild or relocate their practices or find employment. It also announced a program by which they could donate to the American Red Cross.
- v Siemens Hearing Instruments em-ployees and other Siemens employees in the U.S. had donated $1.4 million as of press time to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Siemens is matching those donations, providing nearly $3 million for assistance to victims. Siemens Hearing is also offering replacement hearing aids for those in need. It is working with hearing professionals to coordinate testing, fitting, and programming services. To donate their services or get more information, professionals are invited to call 800/766-4500 or e-mail marketingcommunications@;siemens.com.
- v Oticon is matching donations by its customers to the American Red Cross's relief effort and also donating $1 per hearing aid sold through October 15.
- v Boston Scientific, owner of Advanced Bionics (AB), has donated $500,000 to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.
- v Cochlear Americas is donating batteries for cochlear implant sound processors and also matching donations by employees and customers to organizations assisting victims.
- v Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, publisher of The Hearing Journal, will match employees' gifts to the Red Cross.
Professionals get involved
Countless individual practitioners and the major professional organizations pitched in to help colleagues and patients.
Members of the American Academy of Audiology, working with state academies and SHHH, set up mobile audiology units in cities where hurricane refugees were brought. In Houston, under regional coordinator Richard Navarro, PhD, volunteers from AAA and the Texas Academy of Audiology teamed up with Phonak, Starkey, and Mid-States Labs to donate services. Navarro said also that many local audiology offices had agreed to fit hurricane victims with free replacement hearing aids donated by manufacturers. Further information on AAA's efforts is available at www.audiology.org.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) launched a web site (www.asha.org/katrina) offering resources for members affected by the hurricane. Both ASHA and AAA looked for universities willing to enroll audiology students whose programs were disrupted by Katrina, and at least 10 schools had opened their doors as of September 19.
The International Hearing Society (IHS) created a task force to reach out to displaced dispensers and consumers. It plans to post a Katrina Hotline at www.ihsinfo.org that will post job opportunities for dispensers and other information and resources. IHS is also asking state licensing boards to offer reciprocity for hearing instrument specialists from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
The Academy of Dispensing Audiologists asked members to support efforts listed at its web site (www.audiologist.org) and posted a Katrina Relief page where audiologists could request or offer help.
Hurricane Katrina will surely be remembered as one of the darkest chapters in America's history. However, this chapter includes a silver lining: the remarkable outpouring of compassion and help for victims that it generated throughout the U.S. and around the world. The hearing healthcare community shared deeply in both the darkness and the light.