Pharmacist Shares Hard Lessons from the Joplin Tornado

By Chris Linville, Managing Editor, America’s Pharmacist

As an Oklahoma native, Steven Charles is used to seeing his share of stormy weather. So on May 22, when Charles noticed some swirling clouds and heavy winds outside his home in Oswego, Kan., he wasn’t overly concerned.

“I’m used to seeing that, it wasn’t anything unusual,” Charles, owner of Oswego Drug Store said. And soon the storm passed through without incident.

However, not long afterward, he was notified that the burglar alarm had gone off at his second business, Ozark Compounding Pharmacy, located some 40 miles east in Joplin, Mo. Charles knew that the storm which had passed through Oswego was heading in that direction and he figured it had triggered the alarm. Soon he learned that an ordinary spring thunderstorm had spawned an F-5 tornado with winds of more than 200 miles per hour.

Charles jumped in his car and drove to Joplin, wanting to see what, if anything, was left of his pharmacy. He navigated through police roadblocks before reaching St. John’s Medical Center near his pharmacy. What he saw was stunning.

“It looked like a Civil War battlefield,” he says, his voice shaking with emotion. “There were people with gauze, people with broken arms, just laying outside. It looked like the embassy in Beirut. Everything was just gone. It was just unbelievable.”

Joplin Mo, storm damage The next morning Charles finally reached what was remaining of his 2,000-square-foot pharmacy, which had little more than one wall standing. He retrieved his backup tapes, but they didn’t work. He also located his hard drives and put them under plastic wrapping as a steady rain began falling. Fortunately, Charles said he was able to retrieve data from the hard drives.

Joplin Mo., storm damageCharles has owned Oswego Drug Store, which offers traditional prescriptions, OTC, and compounding, since 1984. He opened Ozark in 2002 to build on his compounding niche and ran it with one technician. Fortunately she was okay, though she did lose her home. After the storm, he said his “knee-jerk” reaction was to try and serve as many of his patients as possible, including doing hand delivery. Also, aware that friends and colleagues in Oswego had family members in Joplin, and with phone reception spotty at best, he made an effort to personally check on as many as he could.

Some two months later, recovery for Joplin has just scratched the surface. Charles said that trucks are still hauling away debris daily. Trees have been stripped of bark. “It seems like a bad dream,” he says. “It just looks desolate.”

Still, Charles said he hopes to re-open his pharmacy in Joplin, but is not sure when and where, and whether he will buy or lease. “I want to take my time and make a wise decision,” he said. “I don’t want to rush into anything and do a Band-Aid solution.”

Joplin, Mo. storm damageWhat he decides likely hinges on what happens with the destroyed hospital. Charles said the hospital is expected to be rebuilt in about two years, but he doesn’t know at this point where it will be.

In the weeks after the storm, Charles said he spoke at some regional pharmacy conferences and offered some basic advice from his own experience. His first point is to listen carefully to your insurance agent when discussing replacement costs. “Which is something I didn’t do,” he admits. “Be sure to have everything covered and up to date. And be sure to document what you have. Go through the store with a video recorder and get footage of everything.”

Another key point Charles makes is to have off-site data storage, which he didn’t, but says he is now in the process of implementing for his pharmacy in Oswego.

“You just can’t be too careful, you have to be prepared.”

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