On his sixth day as the interim CEO of Winston Medical Center, Paul Black was crouched behind a wall in the emergency department, bracing for the impact of a tornado that was barreling toward his hospital campus on the afternoon of April 28, 2014.
The sound of shattering glass heralded the twister's arrival. “You start hearing things flying around and hitting the walls, and in 15 seconds it's over,” Black said. “Then you look around, and it's not what you planned for.”
In a matter of seconds, his not-for-profit hospital serving the 19,000 residents of central Mississippi's rural Winston County was in ruins. The main 41-bed brick hospital building was covered in broken glass and debris. The roof and walls of the ED, two clinics and a dialysis center had collapsed. The 120-bed nursing home had severe roof damage and was taking on destructive amounts of water. Remarkably, among the more than 150 people who were on the medical center campus that Monday afternoon, the only injury was a scalp laceration.
Black, a Mississippi native who had been the hospital's chief financial officer for the previous three years, remembers few details from that first night, as he tried to comprehend the extent of the damage. Plans and exercises had prepared his staff for the initial response, but not for recovering from the scenario unfolding around them. “We get tornado watches and warnings all the time. We have drills. We know what to do,” he said. “What you don't prepare for is being the victim.”