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Officials say U hospital by mudslide is safe, but more rain brings worry

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Mudslide damage behind U of MN's medical campus
The damage from a mudslide behind University of Minnesota's Fairview Medical Center campus is documented in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, June 20, 2014. The cliff collapsed in a mudslide after heavy rains Thursday, June 19, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Minneapolis building officials are keeping an eye on the University of Minnesota Medical Center complex after yesterday evening's West River Road mudslide.

  The foundations of its buildings are solid, the structures remain sound, and the slide happened far from patient-care areas, hospital officials said.

Still, more rain could further erode the slide site, which sits just 10 feet from the hospital's steam plant, said Patrick Higgins, a building official with the city's construction inspection services office.  

"Right now we have a heightened concern for the condition of that building," Higgins said. "If conditions were to deteriorate, our concerns would escalate" as erosion brought the edge closer to the structure.

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Looking at the damage
Bob Peterson of Minneapolis, Minn. observes the damage from a mudslide behind University of Minnesota's Fairview Medical Center campus in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, June 20, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Engineers decided Friday to cover the slope for now with a type of mesh to stabilize the soil and they'll probably decide on more aggressive long-term measures soon, Higgins said.

Minneapolis Fire Department crews were  called to the mudslide around 7:15 p.m. Thursday after the bluff behind the hospital collapsed above the West River Parkway, on the west bank of the Mississippi, and into the river. 

Fire officials said two vehicles were driving on the parkway about the time of the slide, but escaped "without harm."

The slide occurred 75 to 100 feet from the rear of one of the hospital's old office buildings. Medical center spokesperson Jennifer Amundson said no patients or patient-care areas of the hospital were evacuated or affected by the slide. 

About 20 employees in a facilities area were evacuated for a few hours while the site was assessed, and employees removed some oxygen tanks near the slide site, she said.

Public safety officials closed off the parkway from the Franklin Avenue Bridge to 4th Street, and it remained closed Friday afternoon. Yellow police tape continued to keep the public away from the section of hospital grounds where the mudslide occurred, but Amundson said it was back to "business as usual" at the hospital. 

Debris from the mudslide at the U
Debris from a mudslide behind University of Minnesota's Fairview Medical Center campus covers West River Parkway in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, June 20, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

"As you can see we're operational," Carolyn Wilson, the medical center's president said as she stood near the hospital complex.

Soil borings show the hospital's foundation is set deep into bedrock, Higgins said, and the soil at that level is stable. "Right now we're comfortable with them maintaining their operations in those buildings."

He and his colleagues, however, have an eye on the weather reports, which call for rain in four out of the next five days. 

  As Higgins focuses on the steam plant, which he said contains systems such as boilers and air-conditioning equipment, he's also concerned with some of the hospital's underground facilities, which are about 20 feet from the eroded ridge. 

  Building codes usually require buildings to be 30 to 40 feet away.

  Higgins and Amundson said they're not sure how many feet of ridge washed away. Higgins said he's not sure how much more erosion could happen before it might become a threat to the building. If erosion got bad enough, he said, it could "theoretically" jeopardize the structural support.

  Campus facilities personnel did a walking inspection of property along the east and west banks and determined none are so close to the ridge as the hospital and are not at risk of mudslides, a university spokeswoman said.

  Wilson said engineers are conducting a wider review of the hospital complex.