The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 25, 2012

Institute seeking design plans for west tower of St. John's

Blueprints needed for complete analysis of tornado’s damage

By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — Wanted: the original design plans for St. John’s Regional Medical Center.

The plans for the medical center, which was constructed more than 40 years ago, are needed by investigators with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has launched a study into the EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin 18 months ago.

“We are still collecting data, and this is a piece of the puzzle that we still need,” said Michael E. Newman, senior communications officer for NIST in Gaithersburg, Md.

“We have tried to find them,” he said. “The plans are the one remaining piece of the puzzle we did not have. We will still be able to do the report and complete it, but it would be helpful if we could find those plans.”

Mark Levitan, a lead investigator on the study for NIST, said: “We have located some of the plans for the hospital and the other buildings in Joplin we are studying. But the plans for the original west tower have not been found. We are specifically interested in looking at the exterior cladding and window systems. We have used up all our sources for those plans.”

Levitan said a hospital is such “a critical facility in a community, especially after a disaster. We have studied other wind events, and we have found the performance of these critical facilities is not near where we would like them to be. That’s why we want to identify those plans.”

Anyone with the information about the original plans may contact NIST at 301-975-4032 or disaster@nist.gov.

The hospital was designed to withstand winds of 200 mph. Measurements by experts with the National Weather Service put the tornado’s highest wind speed at 200 mph. The tornado blew out the windows of the medical center. Once the wind was inside, the interior of the hospital was damaged beyond repair.

The old medical center was demolished this summer, and its replacement is being constructed at 50th Street and Hearnes Boulevard. After the tornado, architects and engineers analyzed how the nine-story structure reacted to the storm. What they learned from the destruction of the medical center has been incorporated into the design of the new Mercy Hospital Joplin.

NIST is doing the same thing, but on a much larger scale. The study’s goal, among other things, is to determine why structures fail.

Asked Levitan: “What can we learn from this terrible incident to help the nation be more prepared for the future? How can we make structures more resilient to different kinds of disasters to save lives?”

In 1981, NIST, then known as the National Bureau of Standards, studied the collapse of a walkway at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City. That study determined why the walkway collapsed and how similar incidents could be prevented in the future.

NIST’s greatest impact came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. A study of that incident led to 40 significant changes to building and fire codes.

“We expect to produce strong recommendations in terms of responding to tornadoes based on what we have learned in Joplin,” Newman said.

Three days after the tornado, NIST sent four engineers to Joplin to conduct a preliminary examination of building performance and emergency communications during the tornado. Based on the analysis of that data and other criteria required by regulation, the director of NIST established a team under the National Construction Safety Team Act to conduct a more comprehensive study.

The study, which involved dozens of interviews with Joplin residents who survived the storm, is expected to be released next year. In addition to improving building and occupant safety, another goal is to learn more about how people respond to disasters.

The study also could give a much clearer picture of wind speeds during the tornado and how the Enhanced Fujita Scale for measuring tornadoes was applied to the Joplin storm.

Study goals

WHEN WORK IS COMPLETED
on the investigation next year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology will issue a draft report for public comment. A recent progress report on the study indicates it will include:

A TIMELINE of weather conditions and emergency communications preceding and during the tornado, including warnings and siren soundings.

A METHODOLOGY for creating a map from the observed data that estimates maximum surface wind speeds during the tornado.

INFORMATION ABOUT first-person data collection efforts targeting human behavior, situational awareness, and emergency communications before and during the tornado, including a description of the data collection and analysis methodology.

AN ANALYSIS of information relevant to the design and construction of buildings, and their performance during the tornado.