By Wally Kennedy
When St. John’s Regional Medical Center was built more than 40 years ago, it was designed to withstand fierce storms. No one ever imagined it would one day be in the path of an EF-5 tornado.
After the May 22, 2011, tornado, architects and engineers analyzed how the nine-story structure reacted to the storm. What they learned from the destruction of the medical center is being incorporated into the design of Mercy Hospital Joplin, which is under construction at 50th Street and Hearnes Boulevard.
“Mercy asked this question: What can we do so that this does not happen again?” said Steve Meuschke, project manager at the site.
That approach, he said, will lead to the construction of a hospital that will be a hardened fortress.
“Nobody wants to take that risk of this happening again,” Meuschke said.
Keeping Power On
When the tornado struck, 189 people were inside the medical center. Five patients and one visitor died. Others who had been patients there later died of injuries they suffered in the storm.
The five patients who died were on ventilators. Flying debris disabled the hospital’s exposed generators. When the power failed, the ventilators stopped.
Steps are being taken to ensure that the new hospital will not lose electrical power in the event of another major storm.
“The central utility plant will be away from the hospital. It will be beefed up with a hardened exterior,” Meuschke said. “It will house the emergency equipment and generators.
“A 12-foot-by-12-foot tunnel will be built underground that will connect the utility plant to the hospital. All of the utility lines leading to the hospital will be in that tunnel.”
The hospital’s two generators will be inside the reinforced bunker. The fuel tanks for the generators also will be underground. They will contain enough fuel to last four days.
In addition, Empire District Electric Co. will construct a new substation near the hospital so that the hospital can get electrical power from two sources, in case one is hit by a storm. One Empire substation was wiped out in the tornado, and six others were damaged.
Two of the new hospital’s nine floors also will be underground. That will include 14 operating rooms, shielded by concrete walls on three sides and the full length of the hospital on the fourth side.
The lower floors will serve as evacuation areas for the hospital. In the above-ground floors, safe zones with heavy-duty metal doors will be included.
The tornado shattered most, but not all, of the windows at St. John’s. The hospital’s psychiatric unit had laminated glass similar to auto safety glass, in that it cracks but doesn’t shatter on impact. It withstood the tornado’s 200-mph winds. The new hospital will have laminated glass throughout.
The windows and frames in the new hospital’s emergency department also will be impact-tested to withstand hurricane-strength winds.
The walls of the old St. John’s were made of plaster. Metal decking was used on the roof. The exterior of the new hospital will use brick or precast stone. The roof will be concrete.
Before the site was chosen for the new hospital, drill rigs were used to check on the suitability of the limestone rock below. Those core samples indicated a high probability that the rock beneath the hospital would be adequate. The hospital’s design called for the use of 165 supporting piers in its foundation.
But as the earth at the site was moved away, a problem with the rock was discovered.
“We encountered pinnacle rock. That was an unexpected problem,” Meuschke said. “The rock was not flat. It had peaks and valleys.”
To compensate for that, 200 more piers were added to the foundation, bringing the total to 365. Workers soon will complete the last 10 piers. The depth of the piers has ranged from 10 feet to 80 feet.
“There were no mines on this property,” Meuschke said. “We were fearful of that, but we have found nothing.”
An early concern was whether enough concrete would be available for the project — the largest single building project in Joplin’s history — especially as other tornado-related reconstruction projects were taking place in the Joplin area. Meuschke said two sources of concrete are available, and getting enough has not been an issue.
It is not clear yet how much concrete will be used in the construction of the hospital. But it’s going to be a lot. A concrete wall on the south side of the structure that will help support a nine-story tower is 4 feet thick and 22 feet high.
The 875,000-square-foot structure also will include 5,500 tons of structural steel.
“We’ll start erecting the steel on Sept. 4. It will really start going fast after that,” Meuschke said.
The hospital is to be completed in March 2015. When the project started in January, workers were at the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because of concerns about the weather.
“We were afraid of the weather,” Meuschke said. “We thought it would take three months to do the earthwork. Because the weather was so mild in January and February, we shortened that to 1 1/2 months, which saved a lot of money.”
About 75 men and women, mostly from the Joplin area, are working at the site. The number will grow to a peak of 600 people in the summer of 2014.
The hospital is being built in phases. When one phase is completed, a new design package arrives for the next step.
“While we were digging the dirt, we had no idea what the structure would look like,” Meuschke said. “The foundation and walls are one design package. Another package will be the first three floors. That will be followed by other packages for the patient tower and clinic tower. There are 10 packages in all.
“As a project manager, you have questions about things before you get to them. What about this or that? I want to know now, but you have to wait until the next package arrives. That’s the challenging part for me.”
The cost of construction is projected at $335 million. McCarthy Building Cos., of St. Louis, is the contractor.
The big dig
CONSTRUCTION WORKERS have moved about 865,000 cubic yards of earth. Limestone acquired in the construction of the foundation was crushed and used on site to build roads. “We have a lot of extra dirt,” said Steve Meuschke, project manager. “It will start leaving the site on July 9. It will be used in the school projects.”