Corey Russ is a former combat medic for the U.S. Army Special Forces. In 2008, he founded Combat Medical Systems, which sells and develops medical supplies for the military.
On the afternoon of April 16, I was at the Verizon store, about six miles from my company's office in Fayetteville, North Carolina. When the customer rep put the battery in my new Droid, I got a call from ADT Security Systems informing me that our store windows had been broken. It was a Saturday, and we were closed, so I was worried it was some kind of break-in. I hopped in my truck and drove toward the office. As I got closer, I could see trees ripped from the ground, business signs knocked down, and fallen telephone poles in the street. That's when I realized it wasn't a burglary that had occurred. It was a tornado.
I parked on the side of the street and started running toward the office, a few hundred yards away. All I could see was mayhem. Every other building was missing its roof. There was a large apartment complex right behind us, so there were hundreds of people running around the area, digging through the rubble, checking for others. There were cars in the parking lot with all the windows smashed, and debris was everywhere. I've been in all kinds of combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This had the same feel of when a truck bomb goes off, and you're left dealing with a crisis site. The difference here was that no one's actively trying to kill you at the same time.
I ran into our office and saw that all the windows were shattered, and the medical products in our showroom were knocked over and blown around. Glass and tree limbs were strewn all over the floor. The wall we shared with the framing store next door had fallen down. In the restaurant on our other side, I could see some Army medics from the nearby military base, Fort Bragg, helping an older woman. I went over and saw her lying on the floor speaking incoherently. We checked her for injuries, and it seemed as if she had a broken back and pelvis. The medics were about to put her on this improvised stretcher made of two plywood planks and a bed sheet, and I yelled to them, "Wait a second. I have a medical store right next door!" The roof of the building was ripped off, so it was raining on us inside the building while we were trying to treat her.
A few of the soldiers ran over to the office with me, and I started handing them things they could use. I found myself distributing medical kits and supplies to more and more people as they realized the store was there. There were people running around with lacerations from all the glass, so I handed out these bandages we make with a hemostatic agent to help stop the bleeding. We ended up with six stretcher patients in our parking lot, some with broken limbs. We put them on some old pickup trucks, and the medics drove them to where the ambulances were. There was a bizarre feeling, because every guy there had experienced all kinds of craziness in combat and handled the situation well. So on one hand it was very dramatic, and on the other it was kind of calm.
Just the day before, as I was leaving work, I said to my office manager, "I feel like things are really shaping up for us." Then this tornado comes along. It wasn't a decapitating deal, but it was a pretty good kick in the jimmies. We moved operations into our warehouse a few miles away and worked on plastic card tables for about three weeks. Since we were renting our office, there weren't a lot of business losses, but we spent about $150,000 getting moved quickly and getting new IT equipment set up. It was a fairly smooth process, because there was a small fire at the restaurant about a year before, which caused us to think about disaster scenarios.
I'm embarrassed to say I haven't followed up with the people I helped, but I'm thankful and amazed that we didn't have any fatalities in our area. I mean, some of these houses were literally lifted from their foundations. The whole ordeal made me realize that as a business owner, you need to be prepared for anything on any given day.