When Superstorm Sandy approached the medical offices of Robert Lanter, DO, near the South Shore of Long Island, New York, it did little to raise the collective blood-pressure among his staff. Hurricane Irene had brought with it minimal damage one year previously, so they expected Sandy to be of the same ilk.
Dr. Lanter, a New York College of Osteopathic Medicine graduate, specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, neurological evaluation, and orthopedic care for patients suffering from painful conditions, neuro-degenerative diseases, and injuries related to occupational or motor vehicle accidents.
It was a routine morning in the office that day, recalls Dr. Lanter. He saw patients, the weather wasn’t bad. People in Rockaway were surfing before the storm, which is typical.
“I figured it was going to rain, it was going to blow, but it was not going to be that bad. Big storms had come and gone in the past leaving most of the general public unimpressed,” Dr Lanter says. “But by mid-afternoon as Sandy approached the Long Island Shore, there was no ignoring her.”
The Perfect Storm
Meteorologists were calling Sandy “the perfect storm” and noting that two different storm fronts would converge over the Eastern Seaboard at or around the same time as high tide. A giant storm surge would sweep the Northeast Seaboard. Power failures were predicted. Around town, people lined up in service stations, grocery and hardware stores stocking up on batteries, water, cash and gas.
Dr. Lanter decided to wait out the hurricane at home with his wife and 17-year-old son.
“Long Island is basically a huge sand bar with houses on it. It’s pretty flat, especially the south shore of the island. People were scrambling to park their cars, just trying to find high ground at that point. Then, sometime around five o’clock that evening the power went out. We stayed put that night,” says Dr. Lanter.
When the sun rose, Dr. Lanter discovered that his home had weathered the storm relatively unscathed, but his medical offices had not. The parking lot had about 100 cars, all of which were destroyed. One of them actually blew up when saltwater hit the battery.
“The waterline inside the office was at five feet. The front windows were blown out. There were dead fish on the floor, the place reeked of raw sewage, and nothing electrical was functioning,” recalls Dr. Lanter. “The walls absorbed so much water they literally looked melted.”
About three months prior to the storm, Dr. Lanter had been trying out a free electronic health record (EHR) system, in the hopes of being able to benefit from the Meaningful Use incentive program. The system was slow and difficult to use, and Dr. Lanter soon went back to pen and paper again. He had a whole wall of paper charts in his office.
The charts were the first thing Dr. Lanter checked on when returning to his office after the storm. When opening the first one, it fell apart in his hands. Everything he touched disintegrated into crumbs, and nothing was salvageable. To make matters worse, the building grew mold in a matter of days.
“It was horrible, and it wasn’t just water — it was raw sewage,” says Dr Lanter.
The surge had overloaded the Bay Park water treatment plant, located in town, and blew it up. The entire contents of the office were destroyed.
His other office on 129th street in Rockaway Park, also located on the coast, flooded, and the entire block behind exploded from gas and electrical fires. It too was a total loss.
That next day Dr. Lanter and a friend drove through Long Beach.
“It was like martial law. Homeland Security vehicles and members of the military patrolled and assessed the destruction. Trees, telephone poles and power lines were down. Boats were everywhere, on the streets, in backyards, through the sides of houses,” recalls Dr Lanter. “People were walking around like zombies with nowhere to go. It was scary, eerily quiet, and relatively apocalyptic. And there were guns. Many people said that they had guns, plenty of ammo, and were ready.”
Almost no Communication
Many of the pharmacies in the area were robbed of narcotics. There were signs in some of their windows that read “Don’t bother coming in, you’ve already got what we have.” Violence was prominent, especially on the Rockaway Peninsula. The only two towns that were functioning in the area were Freeport and Rockville Centre because they had power, so everyone flocked to that area. Many of the stores there were staying open late.
“The local Starbucks had about 30 power strips strung together for people to plug in their laptops and cell phones. Local gyms were letting people use their facilities. Rockville Centre was a bit of a safe haven,” says Dr. Lanter. “To then further complicate things it was snowing within two days. People had no power, no heat, and we didn’t know if we could trust the water.”
With the use of a mobile hot spot, Dr. Lanter was able to contact his scheduled patients and tell them where to go for their medical care. A friend of his, Dr. Mark Raifman, owned a medical building in Freeport, and let Dr. Lanter temporarily use his medical office. This helped him salvage a piece of his practice.
“There was little communication going on because phone service was down. Many of the cell towers had been destroyed by the high winds. Phone lines had been brought down by falling trees. We did the best we could with what we had,” says Dr Lanter. “Patients were in need of care. We just had to make it work. On a business level it was like being back in the turn of the century. We had almost no communication.”
Another go at EHR
After the storm had passed, it started to become increasingly clear to Dr. Lanter that he needed to give electronic health records a second chance and decided he could rely on MediTouch. He could not take the risk of losing his paper charts and records to another disaster. He was finally able to start backing up and storing his patient data online rather than in a physical location.
Dr. Lanter trained his entire staff on MediTouch. “It’s really been amazing,” he says.
In the remnants of the second-costliest hurricane in United States history, some of the doctors who dedicate their daily lives to helping people ended up needing a helping hand themselves. In Dr. Lanter’s case, he can at least rest assured that next time the storm hits, his losses will be salvageable.