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The EF5 tornado that demolished St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, was ranked the deadliest tornado in the country since 1947. Images of the storm’s unparalleled devastation are impossible to forget.
Within hours of the tragedy, staff members from HKS and McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. were on the ground to assist Mercy in any way possible. It was the right thing to do, and it also provided valuable information about how to strengthen a new building to withstand future storms. Even though both companies had prior experience designing and constructing storm-resistant facilities, seeing Mercy just hours after the tornado afforded lessons to design and build a safer, more secure facility.
Four years later, when the new Mercy Hospital Joplin opened its doors to patients, most important to the owners, the healthcare staff and the Joplin community was that the hospital set a new standard in tornado readiness. The $345 million, 260-plus-private-room Mercy was designed to withstand a greater-than-EF3 storm and to keep the facility functional if it were hit. Working on the project, we learned valuable, hardening design lessons.
The first was to provide safe passage through exit corridors. Brick and block walls in the original Mercy had failed, as well as most of the glass. Stairs collapsed. The roof failed, and rooftop equipment fell on generators, causing total power outages. Backup systems proved inadequate, and evacuation routes were blocked by debris. In the new facility, we detailed corridor walls carrying the studs all the way to the ceiling structure. We added storm-resistant doors and hardware to compartmentalize bed units from other areas of the hospital.
The second lesson addressed safe passage through stairs. To save lives in a time of crisis, battery backup lighting was added in addition to the required emergency lighting. Also, we updated interior perimeter walls to hurricane standards and incorporated storm-resistant doors and hardware at stair exits.
Storm hardening design tips include:
Following our design of the new Mercy Hospital Joplin, many clients with healthcare facilities in areas of the country that experience severe storms and tornadoes have contacted us. The lessons learned from rebuilding Mercy Joplin will have an impact on how owners look at designing and building hospitals to withstand the worst storms.