Joplin’s Mercy Hospital Rises from the Rubble
Here’s how a hospital in Joplin, Mo., is recovering from the massive tornado that struck two years ago.
This is a photo of Mercy Hospital’s emergency room entrance shortly after an EF5 tornado struck it in May 2011. The hospital was deemed a total loss.
On May 22, 2011, an EF5 multiple-vortex, 1-mile-wide tornado struck Joplin, Mo., killing 161 people and injuring about 1,100 others. Of the people killed in the storm, five of them were either patients or visitors of Mercy Hospital, which sustained a direct hit. The hospital itself, which was one of only two in the city, was a total loss.
In light of the magnitude of the damage to the building as well as much of the rest of the city, no one would have blamed Mercy Health for permanently closing their Joplin location and cutting their losses. Its leadership, however, was determined to re-build.
Here’s how Mercy Hospital is making a new start.
Tent Hospital Erected Only 1 Week After Tornado
Because the Joplin tornado was so massive and caused so much destruction, not surprisingly, the first hours and days after the tornado proved to be extremely challenging for Mercy Hospital staff.
“We had so many injuries in town,” says Gary Bartz, Mercy Hospital’s certified biomedical equipment technician. “There was lots and lots of flying debris, so there were people coming in day after day after day needing healthcare.”
Although the other hospital in town was doing its best to treat as many of the wounded as possible, Mercy Hospital officials knew they had to open their doors quickly so they could help. Only a week after the tornado struck, Mercy Hospital set up a MASH-style tent so its doctors could provide full hospital services to the Joplin community.
Drug Seekers and Looters Invade the City
Although the tent hospital helped with the patient surge, Mercy staff also had to deal with crime: specifically crime related to drug seeking.
“Virtually every pharmacy in town was broken into that night,” Bartz adds. “They literally had gangs from Tulsa, Little Rock, Oklahoma City and Kansas City busting into the pharmacies within hours.”
Someone also tried to break into the hospital’s Pyxis machines that had been used to dispense medications.
“We immediately had a team from Springfield go into the building and clear out all of the medication and narcotics,” says Mercy Hospital Manager of Security Tim Wampler. “We made sure it was drug free so if someone got into the hospital, they wouldn’t get that stuff.”
Guarding the tent, which also had a pharmacy in it, proved to be exceptionally challenging.
“It’s kind of like guarding a bank with a water gun, but we did it,” adds Wampler. “We had officers stationed there 24-7. Once we got into a hard shell, then it was a little easier because we could rely on cameras and do our rounds with officers.”
Looters were another problem in the days immediately following the tornado.
“At one time we had guys loading an ATM on the back of their pickup truck,” he says. “We also had a lot of issues with people trying to steal vehicles to make money from the salvage. We have 10 vehicles of our own that we never recovered.”
Orange temporary fencing, along with patrols by local law enforcement, the highway patrol and the National Guard, however, helped to secure the premises. To prevent vehicle theft, they created a check-in system at the parking lot gate.
Crime wasn’t the only issue. It was very difficult to obtain supplies or determine what was needed, especially since a third of Joplin was destroyed by the storm. Bartz and Wampler, however, say the city responded well and Mercy Health, the parent healthcare organization of the hospital, was able to enlist the help of Joplin’s sister hospitals.
Nothing from the Old Hospital Was Salvageable
With the patient safety and crime issues addressed, Bartz and Wampler could assess the damage to the hospital. It quickly became apparent that the old building would need to be demolished. Most of the windows had been blown out by the storm, so much of the equipment and structure inside was damaged beyond repair.