Hurricane Ian destroyed their practice. This is how they rebuilt

Hurricane Ian left a path of devastation when it hit Florida in 2022. Now, almost two years later, the destruction of VCA’s hospital on Sanibel Island allowed their team to rebuild not only a bigger practice but one that provides more comprehensive pet care.

By Connor Dunwoodie

When it struck Florida in September of 2022, the sheer strength of Hurricane Ian left behind a trail of devastation. A Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall, the storm would be one of the costliest storms in Florida’s history, leaving millions without power as it made its way across the state and up through the Carolinas.  

 “There is such a sense of loss and shell shock,” said Lisa Gillespie. “You could literally see shell shock on almost every person’s face.” 

 Now, nearly two years later, Gillespie still vividly remembers those first couple days after the storm. In her role as a Regional Operations Manager for VCA Animal Hospital, she saw the damage firsthand when five of the hospitals she covers were directly impacted by the storm.  

“You had people who had such significant damage, they’ve lost everything. They’ve lost their memories,” she added.  

 As Ian approached, forecasters predicted the storm would make landfall in St. Petersburg, Florida, an area a couple hours north of Fort Myers (where VCA’s hospital on Sanibel Island, along with four other AAHA-accredited hospitals were). Erring on the side of caution, Gillespie and her team decided to move clients to their more coastal centers inland. That was a feat all on its own—in addition to all the client-facing communication regarding the move, there was a mountain of logistical tasks 

 “We had kind of talked through these things, which we do in preparation for hurricane season every year,” Gillespie added, regarding the execution of the move.  

 Their preparation paid off. Ian hit Fort Myers, not St. Petersburg, on Sept. 28 with winds hitting upwards of 150 miles per hour and massive storm surges flooding the streets. The storm decimated everything in its path.  

"We looked at satellite pictures of the hospital and the new site to make sure that they were both standing. That's all we could do.”  Lisa Gillespie
Regional Operations Manager for VCA Animal Hospital

“Post-storm, it was a bit chaotic,” she said. “There were managers I couldn’t get ahold of. Three out of five managers had significant damageone manager had to flee her home.” 

 Despite the sheer destruction caused in the area, the response was quick.  

“VCA did a tremendous job in just the first 24 hours mobilizing,” Gillespie said. VCA did a drop shipment of supplies on a Saturday night for us. Enough for 240 associates to have water, food, baby supplies, and cleaning supplies.” 

Of the many stories of hope after the storm, one stuck out to her: “We had [a client] pull up, and he was an elderly gentleman with his wife. They had been living in their car for five days with their long-haired, older ragdoll cat. He got out and he said ‘I’ve been here before. I’m a client,’” she recalled.

“I said ‘It literally doesn’t matter if you were a client or not. Tell me what you need.’ It’s about community spirit and caring for the patient, but also caring for the owner, right?” 

During that time, Gillespie and her team also worked with a contractor who helped them look at each hospital to see what the extent of the damage was at each place. Of the five in the storm’s path, Sanibel was hit the hardest.  

In fact, access to Sanibel was severely limited following the storm due to the fact that several parts of the causeway leading to the island were washed out. It took three weeks after the storm for the causeway to reopen to first responders, residents, utility crews, and contractors.  “We didn’t have access to even evaluate [Sanibel]. We looked at satellite pictures of the hospital and the new site to make sure that they were both standing. That’s all we could do.” 

Storm damage after Hurricane Ian

storm damage from hurricane ian in 2022
shipping container overturned due to storm damage from hurricane ian in 2022
damage to building from hurricane ian in 2022
damage from a storm surge outside of a VCA hospital after hurricane Ian in 2022

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In the first 10 days after the storm, all the hospitals Gillespie covers were able to reopen, except for Sanibel. But with all the damage that location had endured, she and her team knew there was an opportunity to create something much more purposeful in the ruins as residents returned to their homes 

“We realized that the community of Sanibel was really longing for more services on-site without having to travel inland.” 

Deciding the community could support a larger hospital, they got to work designing and constructing a new, much larger Sanibel clinic. The new space is roughly 4,100 square feet and serves as a full-service hospital.  

“It’s a very exciting time for us to have Sanibel reopened and back part of the family,” Gillespie said. We had a little chunk missing of our heart for a long time.”  

New Sanibel veterinary hospital after reopening

As for a couple of takeaways as we approach the 2024 hurricane season, Gillespie has some words of wisdom to share.   

“My advice would be to make sure your pet is microchipped,” she said.The secondand I think, probably the most important thinghave a plan. Know if you’re in an area where there’s a storm surge, don’t stay, get out. 

 VCA also recently published a 2024 Hurricane Preparedness Playbook, which you can download here. 

 

Photo credit: Lisa Gillespie

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors. 

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