Tornado damages Avera Health campus in Sioux Falls, S.D.

October 1, 2019


Even as a tornado was blasting through, doctors at Avera Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., stayed focused on their job.

"In the middle of the tornado we had a patient who had a severe cardiac event and had his life saved," said Mick Gibbs, the hospital's president.

Gov Kristi Noem
Gov. Kristi Noem got a firsthand look at the storm damage and met with Bob Sutton, right, president and chief executive of Avera Health, and David Flicek, center, regional president and chief executive of Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center.

Gibbs was speaking at a news conference just hours after three tornadoes raked Sioux Falls late the night of Sept. 10. One of them damaged Avera Heart Hospital; the immediately adjacent Avera Behavioral Health Center, an inpatient and outpatient facility; and the nearby Avera corporate headquarters. The behavioral center and the corporate building sustained the most damage. Parts of the behavioral health center and the entire corporate headquarters are expected to be closed for several weeks, Avera said as Catholic Health World went to press in mid-September.

The tornado left 10 people at the behavioral health hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. One person who was outside the hospital also was injured. One visitor was injured at Avera Heart Hospital.

There were no reports of severe injuries or deaths from any of the tornadoes. The National Weather Service said the tornado that hit the Avera hospitals and headquarters had winds up to 130 mph.

Much of the damage at the behavioral health center and the headquarters building was to glass parts of the buildings and to areas exposed by blown-out windows, but the headquarters also lost its roof. In addition, a glass walkway that connects the heart and behavioral hospitals was destroyed.

The behavioral health hospital transferred inpatients to other Avera hospitals as soon as it was safe to do so. Some were sent temporarily to Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center, also in Sioux Falls. Avera spokesman Jay Gravholt said the behavioral health center transferred some mental health patients who required continued inpatient treatment to an open section of a state psychiatric hospital 85 miles away in Yankton, S.D., that is being staffed temporarily with Avera personnel.

Within a week of the storm, Avera had reopened outpatient mental health clinics in the behavioral health center. Its mental health assessment center never closed.

About 130 workers based at the system's headquarters, including Avera President and Chief Executive Bob Sutton, have moved to temporary offices nearby. There was also storm damage to a dome that is part of the Avera Sports Institute in Sioux Falls and to some of the health system's medical offices. Several staffers' cars were damaged or destroyed.

Tornado's Blast
The tornado that struck with little warning late Sept. 10 left the atrium of the Avera Health headquarters building strewn with glass and other debris.
Photos courtesy Avera Health

The tornado had struck the Avera campus just after 11:30 p.m. with little warning.

David Flicek, regional president and chief executive of Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center, described the behavioral health center's staff as courageous. "They had 10 minutes to wake up 102 residents, get them to the center of the building and all are safe and sound," said Flicek, who also oversees the behavioral hospital.

The Avera Heart Hospital did not close but did temporarily cancel elective procedures and clinical appointments. Just blocks away, the Avera Specialty Hospital that will open this fall on the new Avera on Louise campus was unscathed. Buildings about 3 miles away on Avera's downtown campus, Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center, also were undamaged by the twisters.

Tornado Blasted rock

Despite the ordeal, Gravholt said staff found signs of reassurance soon after the storm. For one thing, two banners that hang outside on the back of the behavioral health hospital were not damaged. One says "Faith" and one says "Hope."

A post on the Avera Heart Hospital's Facebook account showed a chunk of wood that landed in the hospital's lobby. The wood appeared to have an embedded impression of a cross.

"Our windows may be broken, our building damaged, but even during the roar of the storm, God shows up," the Facebook post said.


Copyright © 2019 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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