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3 Years After EF-5 Tornado, Recovery of Hospital Reflects Recovery of Town

Gail Banzet-Ellis
Oklahoma Tornado Project

This May marks the three-year anniversary of the EF-5 tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri, just across the northeastern Oklahoma border. As Gail Banzet-Ellis reports, the city, like Moore, Oklahoma, lost a hospital. The community’s health care facilities became symbols of overall recovery and revival.

St. John’s Hospital, now known as Mercy, was ravaged beyond repair on May 22 of 2011. The tornado took six lives there. Down the road at Freeman Hospital, veteran nurse Leslie Allen and the emergency room were inundated with the injured.  Twelve hours and 27 surgeries later, Freeman Hospital regained its collective composure. Only one ER patient died that night. But environmental health and safety officer Skip Harper says an extensive disaster drill the facility had conducted just days before the storm also proved to be a lifesaver.

“There were times when you used to have to beg people to participate in your exercises and events, and now I have people come to me and say ‘Skip, can we try this, we’re concerned about this,’” Harper says.

Freeman learned just how vital phones and the Internet are to operating efficiently and safely.  A retired ambulance now stands ready and waiting for any community emergency, but it won’t carry patients. Instead, Harper says the mobile command vehicle is packed with communications gear, including a direct radio line to the Department of Health and Senior Services.

Three years later, the hospital has fine-tuned its emergency response procedures, but recovery runs much deeper than plans on paper. Paula Baker, president and CEO of Freeman Health System, says the Joplin community is learning that behavioral health cannot be ignored following a catastrophe.

“ We have people who before their very eyes saw people die – maybe their own family members, had loved ones ripped out of their arms,” Baker says.  “It’s not enough to do the surgeries and heal the broken bones and the fractures and all of those injuries.”

Even as a veteran nurse with 27 years experience, Freeman’s Leslie Allen says her May 22nd memories are hard to forget, but Joplin’s steady efforts to clean up and rebuild are therapeutic.

“It’s done, we’ve put it behind us, we’ve had so much go on since in the regrowth and the rebuilding that it seems like it’s been a lot longer than three years,” Allen says.

Joplin is proud of the fact that all tornado clean up was completed within 90 days, but Mercy Hospital also showed amazing determination to rebuild, despite its destruction. Chief financial officer Shelly Hunter says Mercy’s new hospital, off Interstate 44, will be complete in a year and feature a state-of-the-art phone alert system, a new neo-natal Intensive Care Unit, underground emergency utilities and of course, storm shelters.

“We are extremely storm hardened,” Hunter says.  “We put in an additional 8 million dollars just for storm hardening, so almost tornado proof. We hate to say completely. You know you think of the Titanic, but we are about as tornado proof as you can make a hospital.”

Mercy’s phases of recovery included the temporary use of mobile trailers, but Hunter says those are now on loan to another hospital destroyed by a tornado, the Moore, Oklahoma Medical Center.

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