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Home > Mercy News > Buildings magazine features Mercy's recovery from Flood 2008
Published on November 01, 2008
A facilities professional at Mercy Medical Center shares his experiences and advice on disaster planning and recovery.
Contributors: James Earl
Above & Below: Mercy Medical Center employees and community volunteers built a 5-foot levee of sandbags around the front of the facility and at its other entrances. Thanks to their efforts, water levels inside the building were kept to between 2 and 4 inches, and allowed switchgear to remain dry.
By Jana J. Madsen
When word first spread in early June that Cedar Rapids' downtown area could flood, no one imagined that Mercy Medical Center, located nearly three-fourths of a mile from the river, would be impacted. Professionals at Mercy Medical Center, which is comprised of seven connected buildings that total nearly 800,000 square feet, had never incorporated flood-related measures into the disaster plan. "We're not even in the 500-year floodplain here in Cedar Rapids," says Bob Olberding, director of plant operations at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. As the river swelled, however, Olberding realized that flooding at Mercy, which had always seemed unlikely, was imminent.
The Timeline of EventsOn the morning of Thursday, June 12, the day before the Cedar River crested, Olberding contacted civil engineers, verifying the elevation (727.7-feet above sea level) of the ground floor. If the hydrologist's predictions were correct, Mercy was nearly 4-feet above the forecasted crest. Unfortunately, predictions - as this situation proved - aren't always right.
The first sign of the impending flood at Mercy was the loss of power from the local utility. The facility started emergency back-up generation early Thursday morning. Dealing with what happened next - sewage back-up - wasn't nearly as simple. "I had about 40 plumbers come in from three different firms. We had to pull every stool off of the wall on the ground floor and put in air bladders to stop Category 3 water [which contains sewage and other contaminants] from backing up into our facility," Olberding explains. Just as this work was completed, sinks began backing up. With sink drains capped, all eyes were on the rising river. "Then, they predicted a 26-foot crest. The facility was basically good until a 28-foot crest," remembers Olberding. "It became apparent by 7 p.m. on Thursday that the hydrologists had missed their original prediction by about 8 feet." Instead of having a 4-foot leeway, it was now possible that Mercy could have 4 feet of water on its ground level.
Too much water in the hospital's basement would've compromised emergency generators and stranded patients on upper floors. With the river still rising, the decision was made to evacuate on Thursday evening.
With a 5-foot levee of sandbags (built by hospital employees and community volunteers) around the front of the facility and at other entrances, as well as gas pumps and improvised sump pits to collect and pump water back over the sandbags, the damage was contained. "We kept all of the water on both the ground-floor and basement levels between 2 and 4 inches, so we were able to keep our switchgear dry," says Olberding. The 2-story glass walls in the hospital's lobby held, too.
When Mercy Medical Center flooded on June 13, Director of Plant Operations Bob Olberding and his staff took steps to minimize damage, which enabled the hospital to get back up and running as early as June 19. PHOTO: MIKE SCHLOTTERBACK
Tips and AdviceWith quick thinking and wise decision-making, Olberding and his team minimized damage, swiftly began recovery efforts, and learned from the experience. Several of the best practices that were applied - along with some tips and advice - follow:
Reprinted with permission 2008 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
The agility and dedication of Olberding and his staff enabled the hospital to resume operations quickly. Mercy began accepting patients again - with limited operation - as early as June 19 (less than 1 week after the river crested). It resumed full operation, admitting patients to its emergency department, on July 2. By Sept. 25, all displaced or relocated departments had returned to their original areas.
New reports are labeling the disastrous flooding in June as a "1,000-year flood." While history isn't likely to repeat itself anytime soon, Olberding isn't taking any chances. At press time, the hospital was investigating several projects that could reduce the damage and impact in the event of a future flood. "I'd never say ‘never' again," he says.