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Published on September 08, 2020

Avera Leaders Reflect on Recovery One Year After 2019 Tornadoes

Shocking destruction that came in the dark gave way to recovery, response and even blessings in the light of the following days, according to Avera leaders who took time to look back one year, to the devastation of Sioux Falls tornadoes on the night of Sept. 10, 2019.

Avera Heart Hospital President and CEO Mick Gibbs remembers the night with vivid detail, and not just because of the damage.

“I was shocked – to walk into the lobby and see the destruction, the twisted metal, broken glass and debris,” said Gibbs. “We promptly evaluated the building and the safety of our people, then we set up our incident command and I felt we were prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was the inspirational response from our team. To see the dozens of people voluntarily brave the uncertainty in the aftermath of the tornado and show up reinforced my confidence.”

Gibbs estimated that more than one-fifth of the hospital’s “work family” came onsite within an hour, each person, from doctors and clinical staff to housekeepers and maintenance, ready to help.

“It is truly a family culture at our facility and you could see that family come together to treat the injured, sweep debris, hang plywood, feed the workers, and most importantly, give a shoulder to cry on. It was among the most difficult, but inspiring, challenges I’ve faced in my career,” he said. “Everyone put the needs of our patients and our facility before their own. There were 100 people there before we even had a chance to call for help.”

Avera Heart Hospital was only one facility that took a direct hit. The health system’s central office and the Avera Behavioral Health Center both sustained significant damage. Before the sunrise, Avera learned its Avera Sports Dome was flattened, too.

“Thanks to a lot of great collaboration, we were able to keep all of our services open throughout the cleanup and damage assessment,” said Thomas Otten, Assistant Vice President for Avera Behavioral Health Services. “We turned to other facilities to house patients that had to be moved, and as a health ministry, we all came together.” This included a unique private-public partnership in which the state of South Dakota offered the use of space available at the Human Services Center in Yankton.

Services at Avera Heart Hospital were able to open right away and repairs could take place without relocating patients. Leaders realized the necessity of not just enduring the damage, but remaining in service.

One year later, the Avera Behavioral Health Center and Avera Heart Hospital are 99% refurbished, with small touches on landscaping and exterior spaces unfolding this fall. Avera Sports Dome reopened in February, about three weeks before it had to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our facility is greatly improved, and ready for customers this fall as we ramp up for our busiest time of year with local and regional athletes,” said Jason Askew, Executive Director, Avera Sports Medicine. “There were blessings alongside the trials of the storm. It happened at night when no one was here. It also allowed us to make sweeping renovations that will make it a great site for many teams and athletes, with better lighting, new turf and a complete revision of our heating and cooling systems.”

Recovering from the storms of September only to face the challenges of a pandemic a few month later proved the resilience of not just those affected, but the many individuals and groups who came to the aid of Avera.

“It was unusual to have the level of destruction we had and just a few minor injuries,” said Otten. “If patients had not been in the interior hallways, there definitely would have been more serious injuries. This was a testament to our staff’s dedication to keep our patients safe, and a story of God’s care for our staff and patients that night.”

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