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A new hospital safe from the storm; How Mercy rebuilt in Joplin

Mercy Hospital Joplin
Posted at 10:00 AM, May 21, 2021

JOPLIN, Mo. — Inside the new Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Missouri, visitors will find an alabaster chapel wall.

It’s one of the only pieces of St. John’s Regional Medical Center that was spared by the storm in 2011.

Chapel wall

A security camera captured the eerie moments an EF5 tornado tore through the building.

The monstrous winds were so strong they twisted the hospital on its foundation.

“It was worse than you see in movies,” Ashley Miller, who was a nurse on the 7th floor of the hospital, told 41 Action News in 2011.

St. John's Regional Medical Center exterior
A 41 Action News crew was on scene in the days following the tornado.

Unlike the movies, the fear people felt was real.

“I crawled under the desk. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was scared to death,” Kevin Miller, a hospital mechanic, remembered.

The hospital took a direct hit.

Gerald Lawrence, Mercy’s Regional Facility, Maintenance & Operations Director, was there within 30 minutes.

“There was a doctor sitting outside in the parking lot doing surgery on a patient with a nurse, and within 10 feet was a dead deer,” Lawrence said. “Another 10 feet was a smashed up helicopter that just looked like a red ball.”

Windows and walls were ripped apart, leaving the building open to the elements.

St. John's windows
Glass shards and other debris blew through the building.

“We were covered in glass, we were covered in debris,” Miller, the nurse, said.

The hospital’s natural gas pipe and its oxygen tank ruptured.

“If the oxygen and gas had got together, it would have been a huge explosion, so we worked pretty hard to get that turned off,” Lawrence said.

Meanwhile, the generators designed to keep the power on had been destroyed.

“One of the air handlers blew off the top of the hospital and landed right in the middle of the primary generator building,” Lawrence explained.

Gerald Lawrence
Gerald Lawrence points to photographs of what was left of the hospital's main generator building after the storm.

When it came time to pick up the pieces, no one forgot the tragic lessons learned that night.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent engineers down to Joplin to look at the facility and offer advice for rebuilding.

“They were trying hard to improve things so you didn’t make the same mistakes and spend governmental or the people’s insurance money to rebuild something and then have it turn around and happen again,” Lawrence said.

One of the changes is a 250-foot long underground tunnel, which leads from the hospital to the energy center.

“We just send pipes up to the hospital with the services like steam and oxygen,” Lawrence said.

Down that tunnel and away from the building is also where the emergency generators are kept. The machinery is nestled in a hill and protected from the elements.

Generators are now kept far from the main building.

The entire building is also more securely anchored to the ground.

“They drilled back into the bedrock like 150 feet and tied these large cables back into that bedrock and then tensioned them down all around the hospital,” Lawrence said.

On the inside, Mercy installed a brand new window system.

While there's no window that can withstand EF5 wind speeds, which blow greater than 260 mph, the hospital was able to install a variety of new ones that are designed to hold up against 100-200 mph winds.

Some of them are rated to withstand 110 mile per hour winds, while others can stand up to 200 miles per hour.

The hospital also has seismically-harded walls and ceilings.

Alongside the new safety features, parts of the old hospital live on- like the original chapel wall and the employees who decided to stay.

“I do feel safer here,” Miller said of the new hospital.