After natural disasters, hospitals rebuild with 'resilient design'

Hospital leaders whose facilities have been in the unlucky path of natural disasters have learned the hard way that even the best-laid preparedness plans aren't worth much if the buildings themselves can't withstand nature's worst.

After Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast in 2012, costing the New York healthcare sector alone an estimated $3.1 billion, the term "resilient design" emerged in the industry to characterize health leaders' efforts to build structures that can withstand extreme weather, according to a Hospitals & Health Networks Magazine article. But before the term gained traction, hospitals around the country and even the world already had plenty of experience with rebuilding facilities that improve upon their predecessors' shortcomings in the wake of natural disasters.

In Japan, for example, the innovative design of the Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital allowed it to withstand a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the surrounding region in 2011, PBS reported. Though the hospital's emergency water supply did eventually prove inadequate, the building itself sustained no structural damage, allowing the hospital to start accepting patients--and offering refuge to now-homeless survivors--within an hour of the quake. 

The new hospital--constructed in 2006 after an old facility was deemed too vulnerable to tsunamis--owes its resilience to an engineering method called "base isolation," which means the five-story building sits on a series of spring-like structures that cushion the shock in the event of a major earthquake, according to PBS. Experts believe the building can sustain several more earthquakes of equal magnitude before the shocks need to be replaced.

The erstwhile St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Missouri (pictured right) was not so lucky. The facility was blown apart by a tornado in 2011 that devastated the small Midwestern town it served. Mercy Hospital Joplin, the St. John's replacement scheduled to open its doors this month (pictured below) according to H&HN, has been designed with "safe rooms" deep in the core of the building and three different types of glass with different levels of protection against wind.

Officials in hurricane-prone New Orleans, meanwhile, have taken the hard lessons of 2005's Hurricane Katrina to heart in their efforts to rebuild the city's hospitals. Work is under way on a $900 million reconstruction of the city's Veterans Affairs medical facility that will relocate all major vital facility components above flood levels, according to FierceHealthcare, a feature shared by the new St. Bernard Parish Hospital, which H&HN reports was originally constructed 3 feet below sea level.

In Joplin, the new hospital's leaders hope the facility will complement the town's tireless effort to rebuild after the storm.

"After seeing the devastation of the earlier facility, it was important to Mercy to do whatever we can to ensure we're here" for the community, John Farnen, the health system's executive director for strategic projects, told H&HN.

To learn more:
- here's the H&HN article
- read the PBS report