Impact-Resistant Glass Plays a Key Role in Rebuilding Joplin’s Hospital

Keeping powerful winds out of any building structure is one of the most important objectives when riding out the storm—be it a hurricane or tornado. Failure to do so could often mean the difference between life or death.

“Having windows that can withstand a storm and keep out the winds is a huge deal,” says Gary Pulsipher, president of Mercy Hospital Joplin, formerly St. John’s in Joplin, Mo. “Once you get those crazy winds inside a building, they tear everything apart and send debris flying.”

It’s a bitter lesson learned all too well in Joplin. On May 22, 2011 the town was ravaged by a powerful tornado that killed 158 and wounded 1,150 others, ranking it as the deadliest tornado to hit the U.S. in more than 60 years. Cutting a swath of destruction across the city that reportedly totaled nearly $3 billion, the mile-wide tornado destroyed the town’s lone hospital, St. John’s Regional Medical Center.

The facility housed 183 patients at the time of the direct hit from the powerful EF5 tornado, resulting in the deaths of five of those patients and a visitor. Every window in the facility was blown out and the top two floors were blown off entirely.

Never again, officials vow, as they rebuild the city and prepare the new Mercy Hospital Joplin to begin servicing the city as of March 2015. Local residents are being treated at other nearby hospitals in the meantime.

Joplin’s efforts to avoid a repeat of such a calamity were not lost on officials from Moore, Okla., which was also devastated by a monster tornado on May 20, 2013. That twister killed 23 people and injured 377 others with winds estimated as high as 210 miles per hour (mph).

Moore officials have already begun speaking to their counterparts in Joplin about similar building hardening measures as they also begin the painful process of picking up the pieces in their own town, but the talks are in the very preliminary stages, according to a hospital spokesperson.

Building a New and Stronger Hospital

The new Mercy Hospital Joplin will boast a reinforced window system designed to protect patients from tornado winds as high as 250 mph. Additional measures include reinforced “safe zones” on every floor and the construction of the new hospital’s roof from rubber membranes rather than concrete.

All of the measures are intended to make sure the facility can better withstand Mother Nature’s fury and protect patients, visitors and employees in the event of another such storm.

The nearly $11 million spent by the hospital in upgrades is likely prudent, given the city’s precarious location in “Tornado Alley.”

“That was a historic storm that taught us many lessons,” says John Farnen, who is overseeing the building’s construction as executive director of strategic projects for Mercy.

But the key to avoiding a repeat of the tragedy of 2011 was the hardening of the new facility’s 149 windows, according to the Mercy officials. Des Moines, Iowa-based Architectural Walls Systems (AWS) came up with the successful design after several failed initial tries over a span of roughly six months, while Viracon fabricated the specialty glass.

Viracon officials would only confirm that the glass was evergreen-tinted with a low-E coating.

“It was a huge learning curve for everybody involved,” says Jake Drallmeier, a project engineer with McCarthy Building, the general contractor in charge of the building’s construction, “but this is definitely something the people in Joplin are going to hang their hats on. When people come to this hospital, they’re going to feel safe.”

When completed, the facility will have three different types of windows with varying ranges of wind-resistance. The most at-risk patients (those more difficult to evacuate quickly in the intensive care, pediatric intensive care and their adjacent patient rooms) will be surrounded by glass that can withstand winds as high as 250 mph.

Cycle-pressured several times, Drallmeier explains that the windows were vetted in a Minnesota warehouse by the York, Pa.-based firm of Architectural Testing Inc. Technicians shot the windows with 15-pound, 2-by-4 wooden missiles at 100 mph, duplicating how fast debris typically flies during a 250-mph tornado.

“It’s kind of hard to imagine,” says Tyler Millard, project manager for AWS. “It’s quite impressive to see something like that in person and understand what it takes to stop something like that.”

Other sections of the hospital will include lites of 140-mph-tested, laminated glass for all patient rooms and a typical laminated safety glass for others that can withstand winds as high as 90 mph.

Millard declined to go into the project’s glass specifics, citing proprietary concerns, but said AWS was extremely proud of its role in helping the Joplin medical community safely get back on its feet.

“It’s definitely something that has been an interesting process,” he says. “It’ll be nice to say when it’s all done that we played a big part. Hopefully, it will never have to come into use, but, if it does, it will perform.”

McCarthy officials expect the glass and glazing portion of the hospital’s construction to be completed by November.

Kevin Muchow, the McCarthy Building superintendent, says he sees a trend toward this technology, especially in the country’s midsection where killer tornadoes have long been a daily threat to life.

“This is cutting edge,” he says. “They have hurricane windows, but they don’t have tornado windows. They could be the difference between life and death.”

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