After Devastating Tornado, Safety Features Build Confidence At Hospital

Darkening skies still carry a sense of dread for Mercy Hospital Joplin employees who endured the tornado that destroyed the facility in Joplin, MO in 2011. But time has helped temper those feelings, and storm-hardened features integrated into the new hospital give workers confidence they can continue to care for patients in case of another devastating storm.

Joplin Missouri tornado
An EF5 tornado in Joplin, MO destroyed everything in its path in 2011,
including Mercy’s hospital. (PRNewsfoto/Mercy)

“There’s a sense of comfort knowing the windows in the critical care areas are rated for hurricane wind speeds,” said Kevin Kepley, critical care nurse manager at Mercy Hospital Joplin. “And knowing there are hurricane doors that we can close to create a safe zone for our patients.”

The historic tornado offered many lessons about how to build facilities that could withstand a destructive storm. Features like laminated safety glass, concrete exterior panels, and below-grade shelters were incorporated into the new hospital. Because Mercy facilities lie in zones prone to tornadoes, Mercy has also built storm-hardened features into projects across Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. These features vary by community and by the type of facility.

“In a hospital, we do more, because we can’t easily vacate a hospital tower or move patients to a basement,” said John Farnen, Mercy vice president of planning, design and construction.

Maintaining power during a disaster is paramount, and all new Mercy facilities are served by two substations in addition to generators enclosed in concrete bunkers. Electric cables are buried to prevent lines being downed by debris.

“Below ground is still the best place to be, no matter what we do to a building, but that’s not what’s best for patients. Patients need natural light to heal. Code requires all patient rooms have windows – and that’s for good reason,” Farnen said.

As a result, building designs try to strike a balance between aesthetics and safety.

Tornado season is generally considered to peak from April through June, and Joplin and other communities across Mercy have already had storm warnings this year. Farnen said he has confidence that the storm-hardened features will ensure co-worker and patient safety during a tornado. There’s no data to prove that, however.

“Different components have been tested, but there hasn’t been a test of the entire building with storm-hardened features Mercy now puts in place,” he said. “I hope there never is, because I hope Joplin was once in a lifetime.”