Tornado Recovery in Americus

By Steve Hudson | September 28, 2010

When a severe tornado hit southwest Georgia in early March, the damage left behind was extreme — and among the buildings which received the hardest blows was Sumter Regional Hospital in the town of Americus, Ga.

And one of the first on the scene to help was Alcon Associates, a general contractor based in nearby Albany, Ga.

Alcon Associates was established in 1946. The company provides general construction, construction management and design-build services to clients in a number of market areas, including health care. In fact, the company is no stranger to Sumter Regional Hospital, having worked on various projects for the hospital since the 1990s.

The hospital complex, which consisted of a main building and several smaller outbuildings, was originally constructed in 1953, with subsequent additions in 1975 and 1999.

"In normal times we had a crew working there pretty much the whole time," says Alcon's Rick Newell. "But the night that the tornado struck we basically came as friends just to see what we could do to help."

The twister hit the hospital about 9:20 p.m. on the night of March 1. Many of the hospital's employees had gone home for the day. But others were still on duty, and there were also about 50 patients in the facility.

Sitting in their job trailer a few hundred yards from the devastated hospital complex, Alcon's Rick Newell and Pat Etheridge remember what it was like in the first hours following the disaster.

"As soon as I heard the news, I immediately got on the phone," Rick recalls. "I called Pat, my father Roy Newell who is a general superintendent, and Jason Powell our on-site superintendent, and then I headed for the hospital."

He arrived about midnight, and what he found left him at a loss for words.

"I don't know how to describe what I was feeling when I got here," he says. "I don't know that there's a word to describe it. It was like a horror show. Hollywood couldn't have done any better."

By the time Alcon personnel arrived, evacuation of the damaged facility was just about complete.

"The patients and staff were evacuated in less than three hours," Rick says.

But the damage to the building was extreme. Walls were damaged, destroyed or gone altogether. Ceilings were collapsed into rooms and hallways. Debris was everywhere.

"We combed the floors, at least the areas that we could get to, make sure everybody was out," Rick says. Fortunately, he adds, the facility's emergency generator was still functioning, so the exit signs were still on — even though a lot of them were just dangling from what was left of the ceiling, supported by nothing but wires.

Another critical problem stemmed from the water pouring from dozens of damaged water and sprinkler lines. The deluge was drenching what was left of the building and soaking the piles of debris, and Alcon personnel went to work to shut off as much of the water as they could.

"For the most part, we got all of the water shut off that night," Pat says.

Once the crews had done all that could be done in those first dark hours, they went home for a few hours of rest. The Dougherty County sherriff stayed behind to stand guard over the damaged facility.

"But we knew that there would be plenty to do once the sun came up the next morning," Rick says.

Alcon was back at the site at 7 a.m. with crews and materials ready to go — and as they approached the facility they were stunned by what they saw. One of the first things the team saw was the extreme damage to the 100-year-old pine trees that had surrounded the hospital.

"They were gone," Pat says. "The landscape had totally changed."

And then there was the parking lot.

"Out in the parking lot, cars were thrown on top of each other," he continues. The wind had also picked up the stone roof ballast, he adds, and shot it through the air "just like a shotgun blast onto every car out there."

The hospital itself had sustained a major hit.

"The hospital has about 290,000 square feet of space," Pat says, adding that parts of it had been completely destroyed while all of it had water damage at the very least.

Surrounding buildings had suffered extreme damage too. The nearby 68,000-square-foot Healthplex building, for example, was located adjacent to the main hospital building and had been virtually destroyed.

"It's hard to imagine how it could happen without anyone getting killed," Rick says. "But there were just minor cuts and scrapes."

The hospital immediately went to work to set up a triage area in a nearby grocery store parking lot. Meanwhile, Alcon got down to business.

Initial assessments of the damage quickly got under way — and the picture that emerged was bleak. Walls were gone. The mechanical room was destroyed. Interior EFIS walls were "totally blown out," Pat says, and some brick walls had been blown out too. In the original portion of the building, some of the structural concrete beams had been damaged. A brick wall with a concrete cap had come down and fallen into the center of the structure too. Everywhere the team looked, the damage was severe.

"It was immediately clear that the first challenge was simply to secure the building," Rick recalls. "Virtually every door and window had been blown out or damaged," he continues, adding that his crews quickly went to work fastening plywood sheets over every building opening.

"It was a long day," Pat says, "but we had the buildings secured before we left."

Another early priority was escorting medical personnel into the damaged buildings to recover medical records, drugs and other critical items.

"They needed to retrieve those items," Pat says, "but without us to lead them they would have had no idea of what parts of the building were safe to enter. In some areas," he continues, "we literally had to cut out walls to get access to critical areas."

For the next several days, Pat adds, the "big focus was on cleanup and record recovery.

"We blocked off areas such as the labs, pathology and nuclear medicine until special crews could come in and secure them," Rick says.

Initial work at the site also included some significant structural stabilization.

"As soon as we could, we relieved the immediate danger to the roof by shoring it up," Rick says. "Then we got up top on the roof and began removing the debris to take the load off."

That debris removal, he adds, "was basically done by hand, with workers working from a boom truck and removing the debris brick by brick.

"During the second week, we went to work to make the structures as safe as we could make them," Pat says. This included removal of debris, cutting of damaged wires and pipes, shoring of damaged walls and ceilings, and so on.

Meanwhile, Alcon was helping the hospital set up a temporary hospital area in a nearby parking lot. This involved construction of some temporary wood-framed structures, installation of electrical service and plumbing, installation of some 14 light towers to provide temporary lighting for the parking area, and construction of temporary fencing — not to mention fabrication of movable lead-lined walls to allow medical personnel to make x-rays. Subcontractors Albany Electric and Lipsey Mechanical played important roles in this portion of the work, Pat adds.

"The temporary hospital serves more like a triage center," Pat notes, "handling emergencies and then sending the patients on to other facilities in the area. But it's my understanding that they've delivered a baby over there too."

In light of the severe damage, the decision was made to demolish the Healthplex facility. Alcon Associates was also the contractor for that work, and subcontractor D.H. Griffin Wrecking Company handled the actual demolition. The Healthplex was originally constructed as a Wal-Mart facility, and (interestingly enough) Alcon was the general contractor on the first phase of its conversion to a medical facility too.

"In 2003 we constructed a 7,000-square-foot women's imaging center there," Rick says, "and the plans were to add a rehab and wellness facility for the community there too."

But now, he continues, "They will have to start over."

As a long-time member of the Americus community, Alcon has handled other post-tornado work in the area as well. At nearby Harvey's Supermarket, for example, Alcon crews were called on to install shoring, remove debris from the roof, and reconstruct a 180-foot-long, 18-foot-high firewall. Elsewhere, the contractor's crews helped a small drugstore board up damaged windows and doors.

What lies ahead for the hospital?

"There is a tremendous job ahead," Pat says. "About that there is no doubt." He adds, "We're doing our best to get it taken care of, but we expect we will be here for a while."