Katrina washes away lives-but not hope

October 21, 2005

At press time, a portion of New Orleans had suffered more flooding from a second storm, Hurricane Rita. Federal officials said it would take two to three weeks to pump out the additional floodwaters. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates the city's system of levees won't be completely repaired until next June, according to news reports.

National report - Dr. Erin Boh, M.D., decided to wait out Hurricane Katrina. After all, she thought, she could stay with her former husband in an 1840s New Orleans house that was built of sturdy cypress, and she and her 13-year-old daughter, Stella, had stocked up on flashlights, batteries, bottled water, even a transistor radio.

"We lost electricity and a huge tree fell down and knocked the balcony off of the house next to us. It was a bit scary, but we thought we had come through the storm fine," recalls the Tulane University professor of dermatology. "Then the next day we noticed water in the street. It was just trickling in. Nobody knew where it was coming from. There was absolutely no official communication."

But by the next day, the situation had become clear: The city was flooding and they needed to evacuate. So Dr. Boh, former husband Leo Radosta and Stella piled a laptop computer, personal documents, a can opener and several cans of tuna fish into the car, along with two very nervous cats and a Collie. Only blocks from home, the car stalled out in 2 feet of water.

"There was nobody on the road that night," Dr. Boh recalls. They reached Baton Rouge and stayed the night with family, then headed the next day for Lafayette, to reach a car dealership and a nearby kennel.

"The car broke down in the small town of Crowley, so we just abandoned it. We were just trying to get out," Dr. Boh says.

Doctors reach out

Dr. Boh is just one of approximately 150 dermatologists who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina, says Dr. Clay Cockerell, M.D., president of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) - just one of the dermatologic associations that has gone into overdrive to help its members in need.

"Basically, we're acting as a clearinghouse, connecting people with one another," Dr. Cockerell says, noting that the AAD Web site is buzzing with physicians nationwide offering housing and support to their displaced colleagues.

Dr. Boh is a prime example: Not only is she currently living in a cottage behind Dr. Cockerell's Dallas house, but another Dallas dermatologist has lent her a car, while Dr. Alan Menter - who specializes in psioriasis and chronic diseases, just as does Dr. Boh - has set her up with part-time work.

"The dermatology community has been incredibly generous. They even set up a speaking engagement for me in Orlando in a few weeks, so I could have some semblance of normalcy," Dr. Boh says.

Dr. Boh intends to return to her native New Orleans as soon as possible. Of course, Tulane University Hospital, where she works, is closed indefinitely, as are many of the city's other facilities. And officials say several hospitals - including Charity, the city's largest public hospital and trauma center - may be beyond repair.

Still, "The dermatology community in New Orleans is very strong, so I think most of us will be heading back," Dr. Boh says. "Many will go and set up temporary facilities. But I know some people, their practices were completely decimated - they've just given up and are moving to different states."

Challenges ahead

Dr. William Coleman, M.D., vice president-elect of the AAD, also plans to resume his cosmetic surgery practice in Metairie, La. Dr. Coleman evacuated before the storm with his wife, one of his sons, his father, two dogs and a cat.

While living temporarily in a friend's home in Jackson, Tenn., he continued to track down other dermatologists and fulfill his duties as editor-in-chief of Dermatologic Surgery via e-mail and cell phone.

Meanwhile, he made four trips back to Metairie to survey the damage.