When a devastating tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma, last month, everyone made it out of the hospital alive: the employees, the patients, and more than 200 Oklahomans taking shelter inside. But the medical center itself was badly damaged. "I was devastated when I saw it," Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis told the Oklahoma Journal-Record. "It’s a three-story building and it was only about a story-and-a-half tall." The remains will be demolished, but the company that owns it says insurance will cover the damage.
As the center rebuilds, it will get a lesson in hospital tornado-proofing from some people who know the subject intimately: Mercy Hospitals, whose St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Missouri, was torn apart when it landed in the direct path of a similarly powerful tornado in 2011. In news reports, a nurse recalled looking out of a gaping hole in the St. John’s emergency room and seeing a female deer standing in the pouring rain next to a helicopter laying on its side. Doctors worked heroically to help those injured by the storm, but the hospital lost power, and five patients in critical condition died. Several others perished from injuries afterward.
Preventing that kind of loss of life was the primary goal as locals built a new Mercy Hospital Joplin (as in Moore, the old medical center had to be destroyed; the new hospital will be ready in 2015). But to do that meant more or less starting from scratch. "We couldn’t find hospitals that actually had what we wanted to do," says John Farnen, executive director of planning, design, and construction for the new hospital. While there are international standards for mitigating the risk of hurricanes, there’s nothing comparable for tornadoes. The decisions that the designers made could help set an example for hospitals in Moore and elsewhere. Moore clearly realizes this; Farnen and two colleagues plan on visiting the town to relate lessons learned.
Here’s a run-down of some of those lessons:
"The most critical issue we had was loss of power," says Farnen. While the old hospital had a generator outside and fuel tanks above ground, all the critical utilities in the new hospital will be in a concrete, reinforced with masonry, running through tunnels buried underground.
The hospital will have an emergency generator—also protected—which can run the whole facility for 96 hours.
The new facility has two separate utility lines running north and south. Either one is capable of powering the whole facility, so a disaster on one side won’t take the whole building out.
Much of the old Joplin hospital had roofs made essentially of rock. In the tornado, not only did those roofs get blown off, but the rocks did damage. "I’m sure it contributed to being blown around and breaking out windows and everything else," says Farnen. The new roofs will be all concrete, with rubber membranes that hopefully won’t be blown off.
A big difference between tornados and hurricanes is wind speed (tornadoes blow much faster). For the new facility, Mercy worked with Iowa manufacturer Architectural Wall Systems to produce a window stronger than anything on the market. The windows are rated to withstand 250 mph winds and tested to survive a 15-foot two-by-four flying at 100 mph—as well as to flex up to three inches without popping out of their frames.
"Exterior is kind of the first line of defense," says Farnen. Every floor has protected areas far from the windows, with interior hallways, with reinforced doors and ceilings. People who are more mobile are advised to move to the safe zones of one of the two below-ground floors.
With all of these constructed precautions combined with new emergency planning, Farnen says that if an EF-5 tornado hit the new hospital, "we feel a whole lot more comfortable that everyone should survive."
But as for the building itself, he’s more cautious. "Can we ever outsmart Mother Nature? Probably not."