By Levi Sciara, P.E.

Eighteen years ago, in September of 2004, the winds and torrential rains of Hurricane Ivan battered against the face of Baptist Health Care’s (BHC) E-Street campus in Pensacola, Florida. The aftermath of the storm left the campus flooded, waterless, and debilitated to a point of disrepair, leading to years of lingering problems such as a compromised building skin resulting from leaking windows. Hurricane Ivan was the first of a series of cascading interruptions to their operations, which ultimately cost the hospital $78 million from 2004 to 2020. 

Unfortunately, this scenario is quite common. Our changing climate poses a major threat to healthcare providers, because natural disasters that damage healthcare facilities often disable them at the precise time their services are needed most, while also directly impacting financials. Data from the National Center for Environmental Information shows that 2021 was the seventh consecutive year in which 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate events impacted the United States. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that severe weather events can cost hospitals anywhere from $600,000 to $2 billion per occurrence.

As a changing climate creates new risks to existing and new infrastructure, it’s imperative that our communities’ most vital institutions employ resilient design principles and create redundancy to better respond during periods of extreme weather. This is how Gresham Smith helped Baptist create a resilient facility that will improve the quality of life for generations to come. 

Learning from the Past

Challenged by a 71-year old facility that could no longer meet the evolving needs of their providers, staff, and the growing community, Baptist called on Gresham Smith to build a new full-scale health campus on a 57-acre site in Pensacola, Florida. The campus, which is currently under construction, will include a new 10-story, 264-bed hospital; a six-story, 178,000-square-foot multispecialty health center; an 80,000-square-foot developer-owned medical office building; a 48,000-square-foot behavioral health hospital; and a 23,000-square-foot central energy plant.

Given their past experiences, it was critical to Baptist that the new campus withstand future major weather events, with an ultimate goal of keeping the new hospital operational during and immediately following an extreme weather event. Specifically, they wanted a hospital that could support seven days of off-grid operational capacity and withstand a 1,000-year storm, a Category 5 hurricane, and 200 MPH wind velocity. 

While Gresham Smith’s architects and engineers factor historical climate and weather data into design decisions on all projects, the design team for this project took it a step further. To meet the Baptist’s resiliency goals, we conducted a climate risk assessment to help them understand the risks to their new campus before working to develop targeted mitigation strategies. 

Assessing the Risks

To conduct the climate risk assessment, the team first identified the future projected climate hazards applicable to the site, such as high wind events like hurricanes, localized flooding, and water scarcity during weather events. We then gathered data from publicly available information and conducted interviews with local and state authorities having jurisdictions to categorize the severity of the hazard and mitigation strategies. The team then presented multiple strategies to Baptist, with cost associated, to guide the cost versus reward discussion as it relates to implementation within the project’s scope. This initial process helped Baptist prioritize financial resources and focus areas for additional mitigation strategies. 

Planning for the Future

Flooding was quickly identified as the first hazard to mitigate due to the costly water damage at Baptist’s current campus. Not only did the project team study the topography of the project site, but we also studied the characteristics of the entire watershed to understand how much water sheet flows into the site during different storm events and where it comes from. Using this data, the civil engineering team used modeling software to simulate 100-, 200-, 500-, and 1,000-year storms as localized storm events to understand the sheet and concentrated flow paths and flood depths across the proposed Brent Lane Campus.

Modeling showed that during a 1,000-year storm event, the maximum water depth on the site would reach 3.65 feet prior to discharging offsite. Calculations were immediately verified during the early stages of construction when an existing light industrial building nearby experienced almost a foot of water during a high rainfall event. This information helped guide Gresham Smith to design a campus to mitigate the possibility of flooding during large rainfall events. 

To create redundancies and minimize reliance on utility potable water, the team evaluated multiple water supply options, along with onsite storage and treatment. Multiple options were evaluated for water redundancy for both operational water uses (black water and cooling tower make-up) and potable water usages. Options included water reuse, water storage, and water supply redundancy. Ultimately, the design team decided on an approach of stormwater reuse and onsite water supply wells with generator backup for operational water usage and onsite storage of bottled water for potable usage. The hospital has also designed contingencies for gray water supply, including water tanker truck hook-ups with floor isolation valving and a spigot in each floor’s mop room to supply water for toilet flushing.

Climate hazards also led the discussion during multiple design decisions on sanitary sewer discharge, wind loadings and fuel storage for operational systems. Examples of such options discussed were onsite sanitary sewer treatment, higher wind loadings and 14-day onsite fuel supply storage. While these options are suitable options for some projects, the cost vs reward did not warranty inclusion.

Designed to Last

By accounting for the projected climate hazards Baptist’s new hospital campus will be vulnerable to during its lifespan, Gresham Smith is providing Baptist Health Care with the best available information and equipping them to make smart fiscal decisions. The information has enabled the design team to develop a program and strategies that will decrease the campus’ vulnerability during hazardous conditions, ultimately helping create a strong community asset that will be able to weather the storm when it opens to the public in 2023.


Levi Sciara, P.E. is Senior Civil Engineer at Gresham Smith.