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May 24, 2013

How to build a tornado-proof hospital

Daily Briefing

A new wave of U.S hospitals is being built to withstand massive tornados like the EF-5 twister that devastated Moore, Okla., earlier this week.

For example, a hospital in Joplin, Mo., that was destroyed when a massive tornado tore through the area two years ago is being rebuilt to sustain a similar blow. Similarly, the new Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas is being constructed with materials expected to withstand hurricanes and tornados, based on designs drawn up shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

Using strong materials

The designers behind both projects are drawing on lessons learned from the natural disasters by creating roofs, sidings, and windows that can sustain winds blowing at hundreds of miles per hour (mph).

John Farnen, executive director of strategic projects for Mercy Hospital Joplin, told NPR's Robert Siegel that the new Joplin hospital will have all-concrete roof structures below the roof system. The roof of the old facility—then called St. John's Regional Medical Center—was made of metal and insulation and was easily destroyed by the tornado, exposing the inside of the building. By contrast, the new structure will keep the building sealed, even if the roof is blown off.

Farnen also placed particular emphasis on installing windows constructed to withstand tornados. "The windows are all custom-designed and the first of their kind," he told The Weather Channel. All the windows will be made of safety-laminated glass. Some glass will be approved to withstand 140-mile-per-hour winds, and some will be approved for 250-mile-per-hour. To qualify for the higher rating, glass must sustain a 15-pound, two-by-four projectile going 100 miles per hour without breaking. 

In Dallas, Lou Saksen, the senior vice president overseeing Parkland's construction efforts, says the new hospital will withstand wind speeds of 350 mph. (The tornado in Moore had winds estimated at 200 to 214 mph, and the highest wind speed on record is 318 mph.)

Building safer layouts

Farnen says using strong material is only part of the process. The new Joplin hospital will organize rooms and utilities in a way that would keep the most critical operations running during an emergency situation.

Protected areas have been designated on each floor of Mercy Hospital, and the ORs will be on underground levels. The hospital's critical utilities—including water, generators, and fuel—will be housed in a hardened structure and run underground.

Meanwhile, Bob Smith—Parkland's interim CEO—told the Dallas Business Journal that the new hospital's power plant will allow the facility to run at full capacity for at least three days if all other power is lost (Hethcock, Dallas Business Journal, 5/22; Siegel, NPR, 5/21; Baker, The Weather Channel, 5/22).

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