Rebuilding after devastation

March 21, 2012
Annemarie Mannion
Annemarie Mannion

Issue 12

When a tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011, it destroyed 23 of the town's dental offices, and left four dentists homeless. Recovery from the horrific event that affected 40 percent of the community’s dental practices has not been easy, but the Missouri State Dental Association has taken a leadership role in helping those dentists return to treating patients and running their businesses.

When a tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011, it destroyed 23 of the town's dental offices, and left four dentists homeless.

Recovery from the horrific event that affected 40 percent of the community’s dental practices has not been easy, but the Missouri State Dental Association has taken a leadership role in helping those dentists return to treating patients and running their businesses.

The association not only documented victims’ personal stories of the destruction in its members’ newsletter, but has been there to do something it had never prepared for: coordinate a tornado response effort.

Paul Roberts, director of advocacy and outreach for the association, had only been on the job three weeks when the tornado hit. After the magnitude of the disaster was realized, he helped create a document outlining the association’s tornado response effort and it shows how the disaster thrust the dental association into a role it never had planned on taking.

According to the document, “this project was not anyone’s calendar prior to late Sunday evening, May 22, 2011.” No organization charts or job descriptions were in place. There was no ‘tornado response’ budget. Yet, it became imperative to figure out the best way to respond swiftly and to identify and provide needed assistance to the dental community.”

Most of the dental practices that were affected by the storm were in the area of St. John’s Hospital in Joplin.

“The tornado cut a half-mile to three-quarter mile wide and six-mile-long path,” said Roberts. “It moved through Joplin like a lawnmower.”

To help dentists recover, the association first needed to assess the damage that was caused. It was learned that 27 active or retired dental offices were destroyed and 23 of those were MDA members. 

The association dedicated a page on its website to providing information about assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Association loans, licensure and healthcare provider information, and city regulations. A resource page also was established to post all non-financial sources of help such as supplies or donated equipment. Applications for urgent financial assistance also were posted on the website. 

“We need to provide centralization of logistics so when news came in they’d (dentists) get it,” said Roberts.

Within the first ten days following the tornado, the MDA held its first meeting on-site with dentists in Joplin.

“Our members were stunned, but engaged,” wrote Roberts. “We gathered valuable information and started to address their most pressing need: Help me get back to work.”

A local leadership team was put in place and a staff member from the MDA assigned to it. Every dentist affected by the tornado was called directly for an assessment and an assurance that the association was there to help.

The association has been able to assist dentists to cope with breaches in Health Information Privacy rules when records were strewn over a vast area. There is a legal requirement that patients be informed when a breach of their records has occurred and the association was able to help dentists with that.

“We were getting calls (about found records) from six counties away,” said Roberts. “We acted on behalf of the dentists. We ran ads telling patients that your records may have been compromised.”  

If the association had not run the ads, Roberts said each dentist would have had to write a letter to each of their patients about their records being breached.

“This (the ads) saved members untold time, expense and stress during a chaotic time,” Roberts wrote.

The association also started a disaster relief fund and has accepted applications to review how to distribute more than $175,000 in financial assistance to dentists.

“There was an outpouring of funds and donations,” Roberts said. “We started a disaster relief fund and have been dispensing it based on need.”

Roberts said dentists immediately had to consider all options and start making decisions about how they would continue their practices whether that meant finding new space, renting a trailer, or even relocating to another community.

He is happy to report that none of the affected dentists have moved out of Joplin due to the tornado. 

“No one decided to leave as far as we are aware,” Roberts said. “And there’s has not been an issue of patients not receiving care.”

He said the association has placed ads in local newspapers to promote dentists’ new office locations and ran a continuing education workshop to help dentists address their needs and practice management decisions in light of the disaster.

Roberts said dentists in Joplin are getting back on their feet.

“Everytime we go down there the spirit has been better and better,” he said.

There was no budget or outline for how the MDA would help affected dentists, and there is no deadline for when the assistance will no longer be needed. Although life will never be like what is was before the tornado, Roberts said he and other members of the MDA are happy to see dentists return to doing what they love.

“Life is not normal, but dentists are once again doing what they love to do-serve the public and address oral healthcare in their community,” he wrote.

As a result of the tornado, Roberts said the MDA has created new forms, procedures and resources to assist when disaster strikes. Setting up such a large charitable effort was one of the small association’s large challenges.

Roberts said, however, that “it sets up the MDA to better serve members after future natural disasters” and the association will continue to share and learn from “lessons of heartbreak and healing.”