Joplin Tornado Offers Lessons for Texas Cities

New Hospital to have Masonry Exterior for Safety and Appearance

(Article Submitted by the Texas Masonry Council)

As spring weather ushers in tornado season in Texas, Missouri health care executive John Farnen has two words of advice: harden exteriors.

Farnen speaks from experience. On May 22, 2011, one of the most powerful tornadoes ever recorded ripped through Joplin, MO, killing 162 people, including one visitor and five critical-care patients at St. John’s Regional Medical Center. The hospital’s structural skeleton remained standing after the storm but the rest of it was ripped to shreds. The facility was a total loss.

As executive director of strategic projects for Mercy Health Systems, owner of the hospital and the sixth largest Catholic health system in America, Farnen has the job of analyzing the catastrophe and applying the lessons learned to the construction of the new $350-million replacement hospital, renamed Mercy Hospital Joplin.  During the tornado, the building’s exterior covering and windows failed to withstand the wind and debris of the tornado.  The hospital’s exterior at that time was mostly glass, some metal panels, with precast concrete on the main hospital with some exterior insulation finishing system (EIFS), a lightweight synthetic cladding meant to look like stucco. There was also EIFS on the adjacent office buildings. EIFS was popular in Texas until problems with black mold started showing up.

“When you walked around the areas of the hospital that used EIFS, you could see glass shards stuck in it and pieces of two-by-fours that had penetrated it,” Farnen said. “Some debris can go right through it.”

Lesson Learned: Harden the Building’s Exterior Covering. “The new facility will not be covered with EIFS in any of the patient care areas,” Farnen said. “Building exteriors in those areas will either be reinforced concrete, stone and brick, or precast concrete. The entire exterior skin will be made of a harder material, which will prevent the kind of exterior damage we saw at the old hospital and help prevent the kind of serious interior damage that led to chaos and injuries.”

Farnen said the first and second floors of the new 900,000-sq-ft, nine-story structure will have exteriors of hand-laid brick. Above those levels the exterior will be precast concrete with brick veneer. He said they would have used handlaid brick for the upper levels, too, but had to use precast concrete in order to meet the project’s compressed timetable. It’s now scheduled to open in early 2015.

“Brick and stone is just a lot better look,” he said. “Not only does it hold up better in severe weather, but you just can’t beat the look of brick and stone. So, you get a great look and better protection.”

Another lesson learned was to harden and protect back up power sources, and masonry plays a key role in that, too. “Losing power created a lot of problems for us,” Farnen said. “When the tornado hit, the transformers that provide normal power to the facility were lost almost immediately… So, there was no power of any kind inside the hospital, not even for critical-care areas. The new facility will have a separate central utility plant that will be housed in a hardened structure.”

Farnen also noted that the hardened exterior was no budget buster. It added only 2-3 percent to the construction cost. Going forward, he added, Mercy will apply the lessons learned in Joplin to all the new facilities it builds in its four-state service area. Indeed, near the new Mercy Hospital Joplin, the health system plans to break ground next year for a separate behavioral health hospital and a rehabilitation hospital, and these also will have the same tornado-resistant features, he said.

Rudy Garza, executive vice president of the Texas Masonry Council, said a growing number of Texas communities would agree with the Missouri health care executive. More than 170 Texas cities have adopted minimum requirements for masonry on the exteriors of new construction.

The Joplin tornado was a historic natural disaster, and every city should look closely at the lessons learned in that event,” Garza said. “The hospital’s experience is an important example and has implications for residential, as well as commercial structures.”

He added that, “Often, Texas municipal leaders cite appearance, community image, sustainability, and safety as the main reasons for requiring masonry as the primary exterior material.”


The Texas Masonry Council represents the masonry manufacturers, suppliers, and contractors in Texas. The TMC assists communities seeking to enhance their appearance, safety, and long-term sustainability by incorporating masonry planning into their development plans.