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Building a hospital in a tsunami zone: Are they crazy?

Most of you in the healthcare safety profession spend your career trying to keep your facility out of the way of mayhem and destruction.

Last week, I spent some time talking to Wayne Hellerstedt, the interim CEO of Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach, Oregon. If you’ve ever been to the beautiful beaches of Oregon you understand why the folks who live there along Route 101 wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

But living there is a gamble: Only about 100 miles off the U.S. Pacific Coast lurks a seismically active fault that emergency management professionals have been saying for years will produce an earthquake of magnitude 8 or greater – as well as a monster Tsunami—within the next 50 years.

So why is it that the town of 22,000 just approved the construction of a brand-new, $28-million critical access hospital right in the path of such a potentially destructive wave?

Call it necessity. The town’s current 18-bed Curry General Hospital was built in 1949 when there were no seismic building codes, and the building was last renovated in 1969. A one-envelope building located four blocks from the beach, the facility has no smoke corridors or fire doors, leaving it woefully behind today’s accreditation standards and has left it in constant threat of being shut down by local fire marshals. So what needs to be considered?

Risk assessment. For one, tsunamis are mercifully rare. The new Curry General Hospital is being built based on the risk of the area being hit by a monster tsunami. While yes, recent events in Indonesia and Japan show that a monster tsunami is indeed possible, the odds of a 100-foot tsunami hitting any one place on the planet are really very small.

Height above sea level. In Gold Beach, the town proper is only about a half-mile wide before the mountains start rising behind it. While the new hospital may be located only four blocks from the water’s edge, it’s still located 50 feet up on the hillside, a bet the town’s planners were willing to take.

Location. Gold Beach, while a beautiful place, is quite isolated, with the closest hospital facility located about 60 miles away to the north and the south. For that reason, the facility had to be designed to operate independently and cost-effectively—and it had to be located in the part of town where the population was centered. While going uphill would place the building out of the way of a higher tsunami, it puts it in danger from landslides and unstable ground. The building footprint is designed so water from a tsunami would drain back to the ocean.

Contingency plans. In the event of a crippling earthquake or tsunami, there’s a good chance the town of Gold Beach would be isolated for weeks or months, and may not have access to outside government resources.

Emergency plans call for transportation arrangements with local ambulance services to help patients and staff get to and from the hospital, and if needed, air ambulance service would be coordinated with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. In Gold Beach, the municipal airport is located right on the beach, so the new hospital is being built with a helipad in case it was unusable after a tsunami.