Post-Sandy: Optical Organizations Recover, Rebuild

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Volunteers (and sisters) Tanya, Robyn and Melissa Pannell were a huge help at Vision Finders.
NEW YORK—Seven weeks since Hurricane Sandy left numerous communities damaged or destroyed, VMail has reached out again to optical industry members affected by the storm. With many rebuilding their businesses while serving others in need, eyecare professionals in New York, New Jersey and across the country have been taking steps toward recovering what was lost and resuming “business as usual.” Several report they have done so with the assistance of organizations, suppliers and colleagues throughout the optical industry and vision care profession.

With many businesses closed since Sandy, the American Optometric Association (AOA) has been assisting optometrists whose practices and homes suffered damages during the storm. The Association is also encouraging members to make donations to Optometry’s Fund for Disaster Relief, administered by Optometry Cares, an AOA Foundation program.

VSP Vision Care has continued to devote time and effort to storm relief, most notably with the VSP Mobile Eyes Program. According to a spokesperson, two mobile clinics, Eyenstein and SeeZar, departed from the VSP headquarters in Rancho Cordova, Calif. on Nov. 20 to reach Sandy affected areas. The mobile clinics provide employment opportunity for practitioners whose businesses were halted because of the storm, as well as free eyecare and eyewear for storm victims in need.

Optometrist Frank DeRienzo, OD of Newport Vision Center Jersey City, N.J. spent the last month treating patients aboard SeeZar, the VSP mobile clinic currently located in New Jersey.

“I’ve been working on the van since the twentieth [of November]. We hit the ground running,” Dr. DeRienzo said. “Every day there’s a line of patients outside to see us. A lot of these people have nothing, have no money or even transportation to get to a store to pick up readers. Our goal is to take care of as many people as possible.” The mobile clinics, DeRienzo said, are both well equipped and well staffed. In addition to an on-site OD, “the van has top of the line equipment, fabrication, lenses and a local optician there at all times,” he said.

The Mobile Eyes Program, DeRienzo said, has received a positive response not only from the patients it has served, but from those working aboard the clinic.


Dr. DeRienzo and patient aboard the Mobile Eyes clinic.

“In general people are very, very happy. It gives you a great feeling inside that you can help these people. On the list of things these people have to worry about, [getting glasses] is something so simple, but it’s not simple to them. This mechanism VSP has in place is such a well-oiled machine; they are able to move these people through and keep everyone happy. There are not many jobs you leave and say, ‘boy I really did something good today’.”

DeRienzo, whose practice has been shut down since the storm, has also been involved with rebuilding of his own. His office, he said, took in four feet of flooding from rain and storm surge.

“It basically damaged everything; the infrastructure, the walls and floors, half a dozen computers…it was basically a disaster in there,” he said.

According to DeRienzo, within a week VSP assessed the damage to his store and offered him an opportunity to work aboard the mobile clinic. “[VSP] has been very helpful to us,” he said.

DeRienzo faced repairs of a 2,700 square foot office, but did not do so without help; the landlord, hired workers and staff have all assisted in getting the practice back to normal, he said.

“When you redo a building, you’re condensing three months of work into five weeks; it’s a big job,” DeRienzo said. “Myself and my partner, Bruce Meyer, are there every night working, [and] four fulltime staff members [have] been in every day organizing, putting files back, cleaning, calling patients, trying to book appointments and trying to get back to some sense of normalcy.”

Another New Jersey-based practice, Snyder Eye Care, saw considerable damage due to the storm. One location in Tuckerton, N.J. is now fully functioning and another in Ship Bottom, N.J. is on its way to recovery. Owner and practitioner Robert Snyder, OD attributed much of his success to relief from Vision Source, whose foundation (The Vision Source Foundation) provides financial assistance to members facing hardships in situations such as natural disasters.

According to Dr. Snyder, his office is still in reconstruction mode, with walls, floors, and furniture all being cleaned and repaired. Although issues continue to arise, Snyder said, he anticipates the store being fully remodeled within the next 8 weeks, and has begun scheduling patients for mid-February.


Snyder Eye Care in N.J. after months of refurbishing.
“We were shocked when we received the check from the Vision Source Foundation,” Snyder said. “It was the financial assistance from the Foundation that got us through the month of October and the generosity of our vendors, colleagues, staff and fellow residents that has gotten us where we are today. I am happy to say that Snyder Eye is getting back on track.”

Kevin Flynn, owner of Vision Finders in East Rockaway, N.Y. described his business as completely destroyed directly after Sandy, but he is now in the final stages of cleaning and preparing for patients. With construction, painting, carpeting and other repairs near completion, he plans to be back in business by the end of the month.

“I’m hoping within the next week to get product in and be able to service people. It’s now a matter of cleaning everything off,” Flynn said, referring to the “sea water and grime” that saturated the store’s interior. “Anything you have [in a store], things you wouldn’t even think of, have to be disinfected and cleaned multiple times. It’s a lot of work.”

In addition to around the clock work and preparations, Flynn attributed much of his recovery to help from friends, families and organizations. He particularly cited the help from Fashion Optical Displays, an optical dispensary design and building company, and Histacount, a medical office supplies company

“I was out of money, favors and borrowing,” Flynn said, having lost furniture, equipment and merchandise. “When I called [Fashion Optical Displays] to see what new seating might cost me…they donated $1,200 worth of chairs.”

In addition to the store’s furnishings, Flynn said, between 70 percent to 80 percent of the business’ patient records were lost. After calling Histacount about the cost of replacements, the company provided the filing products he needed free of charge. “They replaced five or six thousand file pockets for patient records,” he said. “Replacing them would have cost over $1,000.”


Kevin Flynn gestures toward his store's progress.
Despite personal setbacks, Flynn intends to continue business as usual. “I’m not one for coupons or sales, but I am going to have to do something to generate business,” he said. “It goes against my mindset but I might need to.” He also plans on using his services to help those in need of eyecare who may not be able to afford it. “If I can help people out, that’s going to be a big push for me,” he said. “A couple of times a year I donate frames to people, and this might be one of those times I do a little bit more.”

Staten Eye Land, a two-location practice, suffered fewer setbacks than much of their community. Since Sandy, they have concentrated on helping others in the Staten Island area meet their vision care needs by collecting and distributing eyeglasses and other materials through a program they titled “Operation Sandy Eyes.”

At the time the storm subsided, owners Stephanie and Alan Fruchtman publicized their initiative through local press, shelters and community websites, resulting in about five “Sandy Eyes” patients visiting the practice, she told VMail previously. Since, then, the number of patients the practice has assisted has increased considerably, with “at least four dozen pairs of free eyeglasses” distributed, she said.

“We’ve tried to get the word out to grassroots charities in the community,” Fruchtman continued, though her assistance has gone well beyond her own town—“We’ve had people from Queens come to get glasses because they heard were doing it,” she said. Everybody is so appreciative...Everybody cries when they come to us. They cost nothing and you’re giving them something.”

Staten Eye Land, Fruchtman said, has no plans to discontinue the program. “We’re going to continue to do it because there are a lot of people who need it,” she continued. “My whole staff is behind it.”

Another relief enthusiast, Eye Shoppe owner and sales representative Jared Buchansky, has also made strides in involving the optical community in Sandy relief efforts. Buchansky reached out to industry friends and colleagues immediately after the storm to collect eyeglasses, toiletries and other supplies to ship to his past and present home communities, Staten Island and New Jersey.


Eyewear representative Jared Buchansky provided several truckloads of optical and other supplies.
“Our relief program has definitely progressed incredibly,” Buchansky said. “We have gotten a tremendous response from our eyewear community and the outpouring of support has been massive.”

According to Buchansky, industry friends sent readers, frames, eyeglass cases, uncut lenses, safety glasses and other materials to support his initiative to assist storm victims. “We have received a lot of everything, and it has all gone to great use,” he said. “We have had a tremendous impact.”

Buchansky combined efforts with others in the community such as Paula Raffone Pucciarelli, recently named the NY Daily News Person of the Year, and the Guyon Rescue.

“One thing they have said is that they have received many donations from so many people, but eyewear was never a thought until I brought it to their attention,” he said, continuing, “and the response has been great. This is all due to our wonderful industry. All the donators should be very proud of themselves.”

For more information on Sandy Relief efforts in the optical industry, visit VM’s previous coverage.