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Sisters of Mercy to Rebuild Joplin Hospital Devastated by Deadly EF-5 Tornado (Part 1 of 2)

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St. John’s Regional Center
Virtually every patient and visitor who was in St. John’s Regional Center when the tornado struck suffered cuts from flying broken glass. Five patients and one visitor were killed, but the hospital’s evacuation plan was credited for saving many lives. (Photo: Mercy Health via Flickr)

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Mercy Health 60-bed mobile hospital
Within a week of the tornado, Mercy Health had opened a 60-bed mobile hospital offering a full array of services, including emergency, surgery, imaging, lab and inpatient care, and able to withstand 100-mph winds. (Photo: Mercy Health via Flickr)

Richard Merli |

‘Condition Gray’ Evacuation Plan Credited with Saving Many Lives

JOPLIN, Mo. — The Sisters of Mercy have made a commitment to spend as much as $543 million on a new state-of-the-art hospital—slated to open in 2014—to replace St. John’s Regional Medical Center, which was destroyed by an EF-5 tornado.

The May 22 tornado, which packed winds of up to 198 miles per hour, killed five patients and one visitor at the 367-bed hospital. The victims were among a total of 154 people killed by the severe weather in this southwestern Missouri city of 50,000 people.

The late-afternoon tornado made a direct hit on St. John’s and then appeared to stall over the hospital for a minute or more, according to emergency management personnel. It tore off portions of the hospital’s roof and peeled off entire sections of its façade.

Walls in the modern nine-story building were knocked 10 feet out of place; windows were blown out and rooms and corridors strewn with broken glass, fragments of concrete, and ceiling tiles. Virtually every patient and visitor suffered cuts from flying broken glass. Medical records and X-rays were sucked up by the tornado and dumped two counties away.

On the morning after the storm, the hospital—one of Joplin’s tallest buildings—appeared bombed out.

“The hospital was completely devastated,” says Jeff Hamilton, emergency management coordinator for the Sisters of Mercy Health System, which operates 28 hospitals and more than 200 outpatient facilities in the Midwest. “The tornado twisted the building 41/2 inches off its foundation. I’ve never seen anything remotely like it in my life.”

Employees in linen services escaped injury and death, according to Marilyn Endicott, director of materials management, which includes linen services. Linen services distributes clean linen provided by Healthcare Linen Specialists, a commercial service in Joplin.

“It’s miraculous that no one in linen services was killed or injured,” says Endicott, who credits the health system’s emergency evacuation plan, dubbed Condition Gray, with saving lives and sparing injury to the employees.

Remarkably, the only major loss involved damage to linen inventory, according to Endicott.

By the morning after the tornado struck, the hospital, which is a major trauma care center in the area, had moved all its patients to other facilities, says Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for the hospital.

Hospital staff worked all night caring for patients. The most critical patients were taken to Freeman Health System hospital, about two miles east. Patients who were able to walk were taken to Memorial Hall, a community building in Joplin, where a makeshift clinic was set up. Still others were taken to a Catholic high school, at least temporarily.

St. John’s Regional Medical Center set up as a Mobile Surgical Hospital near the ruins of the hospital and received linen twice daily from Healthcare Linen Specialists. Under a talent-sharing program, employees of linen services did not lose their jobs; they were dispersed to work at other hospitals in the area, as needed.

Tomorrow: The twister cut a swath of damage nearly a mile wide and four miles long…

About the author

Richard Merli

Richard Merli, who resides in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a former editor of American Laundry News.

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