MEMA building to provide safe haven from natural disasters,
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency's Emergency Operations
Center was conceived about five years ago as a fortress that
would withstand natural disasters and acts of terrorism, and
one that would provide a safe haven for emergency and government
agencies during any sort of crisis.
"This was before Sept. 11, but after the 1995 Oklahoma
City bombing, so we knew there was a risk of domestic terrorism,"
said Robert Laitham, executive director of MEMA. That risk
pushed designers to create a secure facility that could house
government entities forced out of their individual points
of operations during a disaster.
"Our current facility is small, antiquated and doesn't
have the space or technology to sustain a long-term operation
or the necessary staff should the need arise," Laitham
said. "We wanted to design something that would be self-sustaining
without any outside support. If everything else fails, this
building needs to continue because you've got to make sure
the seat of government operates."
The resulting $13.8 million 72,000-sq.-ft. facility in Pearl
is an impressive mass of poured-in-place concrete, nestled
half underground and protected on all exposed surfaces by
precast concrete panels. Even the glass entrance, which marks
one of the few possible points of penetration on the building,
is guarded by X-ray machines.
"We wanted it to have a sense of mystique about it,
so people would have a little intimidation when approaching,
like reverence for the building's purpose," said Bill
Tompkins, principal architect with the Jackson firm of Tompkins
and Barron. "As a visitor enters from the front, the
sidewalk appears to float above the ground and there are decorative
barriers to keep people from driving into the building. The
whole design creates a sense of caution, like a secure government
building, to make people feel like they are being watched
when they enter."
The Mississippi Legislature appropriated funds to build an
Emergency Operations Center and the Federal Emergency Management
Agency awarded a $6.6 million grant for the project, Laitham
said. In addition to the EOC, the building will normally house
offices for Homeland Security and the Mississippi State Health
Department. During an emergency, the building will be a central
command for the governor, MEMA and FEMA and includes a media
briefing room with a variety of communication capabilities.
Consequently, the state and federal government dictated stringent
security requirements, Tompkins said.
"There was the need for the building to be self-sustaining
in the event of major power and utility losses, but it also
needed to be pleasant and provide a good work environment
for the regular employees," Tompkins said.
Inside the building, the architect created a lot of interior
open spaces with glass walls and bright colors and with offices
facing open hallways. On the exterior, Thompkins opted for
ribbed, precast panels for the protective cladding. The ribbing
creates shadow lines.
"There's more concrete in the walls than in the slabs,"
said Brad Bradshaw, project manager for Jackson-based Harrell
Contracting Group, the project's general contractor. Six-in.
precast panels further protect the 12-in. walls, which are
poured double the thickness of the slabs.
By the time the building is complete, ready-mix supplier
MMC Materials Inc. of Jackson will have provided between 12,000
and 13,000 cu. yds. of concrete to Harrell and Jackson Precast,
the Jackson company that is fabricating the exterior cladding.
Harrell received the notice to proceed in July 2004 and began
with clearing the site's pine trees.
"Then we had to dig a big hole," Bradshaw said.
Delta Land Construction Co. of Ridgeland, Miss., excavated
and removed 50,000 yds. of material to create the massive
hole in which the first floor would be constructed.
"We had to haul off all of that Yazoo clay because it
was unsuitable to use for fill in that area," said Bill
Summers, an estimator for Delta Land.
Once the hole was dug, Harrell erected a tower crane in the
center of the circle to drill the concrete pilings and pour
the concrete. After the pilings and grade beams were complete,
the contractor began construction of the first-floor structural
slab and exterior walls.
"We poured about 10,000 sq. ft. of floors at a time,
with some block-outs," Bradshaw said.
Creating circular impressions in the otherwise monotonous
poured-in-place walls was probably the hardest part of the
job, said Tommy Joseph, superintendent for Harrell.
"We had to set these little round (components) in the
forms (to create the impressions), and trying to make the
holds on the forms and put it all together to look right was
a problem at first," Joseph said. The Harrell crew figured
out a way to attach the components so workers could jump the
forms on a long wall without having to reset them each time.
"We had to glue them and screw them in," Joseph
added. "Sometimes they would pop off, but most of the
time they wouldn't."
He said the walkway leading up to the main entrance of the
building is an interesting feature.
"It wasn't that complicated, but it was the first sidewalk
I've done that is sitting on pilings and grade beams,"
Harrell back-built the whole structure using the tower crane
until it was time to construct the roof and exterior panels,
Normally, Jackson Precast would use its own batching facilities,
but due to the tremendous amount of exposed poured-in-place
and precast concrete, maintaining uniformity in the mix was
"We have a plant in Jackson and we fabricated there,
but we used MMC Materials and its self-compacting concrete
mix design that was the same as used for the poured-in-place
onsite," said Bob Fulcher, sales and marketing with Jackson
Precast. "We wanted to make sure the panels matched the
rest of the building."
For MMC, scheduling deliveries has been a challenge, "but
it's good, consistent, everyday work," said Stewart Boone,
commercial sales representative. "It's a very large concrete
job and, when you add precast it makes it even that much more
Jackson fabricated approximately 160 ribbed panels, a third
of which were identical, Fulcher said. The largest panel weighed
in at 15,000 lbs., but the average size ranged from 10,000
to 11,000 lbs.
"These panels have .75-in. recessed ribs and are battered
five degrees," Fulcher said. "That means the panels
go up and slope away. It's an unusual design, which gives
this building a very distinctive look."
The architect's specifications also called for sandblasting
the ribbed areas of each panel, which created a contrasting
Harrell is setting six to 10 of the panels each day, at varying
angles. The edges and corners of each panel must be flush
with the adjacent panel, so the corners must meet in three
dimensions, Fulcher said.
"The aesthetics of the building are just wonderful,"
said Fulcher, pointing to a where two angular panels meet
at a corner.
"This is an unusual building and I like what the architect
did with the sandblasted and non-sandblasted areas."
If the contractor continues at the current pace, MEMA officials
hope to move in by the first of the year, Laitham said. That
will be well ahead of the July deadline.