In February, residents of Miami Beach weren’t thinking about global pandemics. They were thinking about the approximately 80,000 visitors flooding the Miami Beach Convention Center for the NFL Experience in conjunction with Miami hosting Super Bowl LIV.
A lot can change in two months. Billboards on I-95 still hype the big game held Feb. 2, but there aren’t many drivers on the road to see those advertisements since the governor issued his “Safer at Home” order that took effect April 3.
The Miami Beach Convention Center has changed a lot in that time too. Just two years removed from a $620 million makeover that modernized the facility, the center won’t be hosting Super Bowl fans, car shows, or boat shows for a while. Instead, it will be part of a response to COVID-19 that spans federal, state, county, and local governments in a race against the clock to build enough hospital beds to supplement local hospitals and avoid a medical system collapse as happened in Italy.
“We’ve been in the Miami area looking at different places we could build alternate care facilities since mid-March,” said Lt. Col. Todd Polk, the Jacksonville District of the Army Corps of Engineers deputy commander for South Florida. “Having teams in the field early really paid off. By the first week in April, we had our assignment and shipped a team down to the Miami Beach Convention Center to begin construction.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued the formal mission assignment to begin converting the convention center on April 4, and the Corps moved into warp speed. District contract officers awarded the work to Robins and Morton Group just two days later on April 6, and construction started the next day inside the facility.
“The initial requirements were not even completely ready,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville District. “We often use the analogy of building an airplane while we fly it a lot, but it was really true in this case. We were making multiple changes to the plan every day for the first week of construction. Crews were working 24 hours a day, so we would make a decision to change something and the contractor was executing it immediately.”
The overall mission was pretty daunting:
- Turn 246,000 square feet of open space into a 450-bed facility - 400 acute care and 50 isolation bay spaces – with the equipment needed to treat patients suffering from COVID-19
- 10 X 10 bed spaces
- Negative pressure system for the 50 isolation units that won’t allow air to escape with coronavirus to endanger staff and other patients
- Hard-line oxygen delivered to every room
- Individual nurse call buttons for each patient
- Convert the remainder of the 1.4 million square foot convention center into the storage and support spaces needed to support those 450 beds.
- On-site pharmacy
- On-site laboratory
- Dedicated nursing stations covering 14-15 beds per station
- Medical staff showers and personal protective equipment donning and doffing areas
- Medical staff rest and break areas
- Medical command center and administrative spaces
- 2 cafeterias
- Ambulance staging area and isolated patient intake
- Use or adapt existing infrastructure to meet the needs of a 24/7 medical operation
- Upgraded air filtration systems (MERV 15)
- Emergency backup power
- 5 miles of copper tubing running to each bed from a 11,000 gallon oxygen tank with 1,500 gallon reserve
- 50 miles of electrical cable supporting medical equipment in each bay
- 100 miles of Cat 6 cable to transfer data to and from medical equipment throughout the facility
And all of this was scheduled for completion by April 27. But the state didn’t have until April 27, as the Corps found out on the second day of construction, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the site and met with Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commanding general and the chief of engineers.
“The governor just sat with me in the trailer behind us and said ‘You’ve got until the night of the 20th of April.’ There’s no time to design and build it. We have a suspense and we have to get it done,” Semonite said at the news conference that followed.
That put the pressure on the Jacksonville District team and the contractor, said Polk.
“Instead of three weeks, we had two,” Polk said. “We were already looking at 24-hour shifts and a tight deadline. Add in the complication of requirements being refined in real time and the difficulty everyone in the nation is facing when ordering the medical equipment, and what was a hard assignment became one of the most challenging we’ve ever faced.”
So what did the Jacksonville District do when facing a shortened deadline and a Herculean task? It worked with the contractor to deliver the facility ahead of schedule. Instead of completing construction on April 20 and handing the facility over to Florida at midnight, crews finalized the last pieces Saturday evening, April 18, and handed the keys over to the Florida Division of Emergency Management at 1 p.m. on April 19.
Kelly said there were a lot of factors involved in success – national support from USACE on supply chains, enough funding, a willing partnership with the city and county government, a dedicated Corps team on the ground working with the contractor. But the factor that really stood out was the way the state worked to provide the requirements needed to complete construction.
“The biggest concern I had was being able to make the decisions that needed to be made at the right time,” Kelly said. “Tallahassee gave us exactly what we needed. They were able to say what we should do, what needed to adjust in the plans, and make rapid and effective decisions. It was immeasurable for those of us out here daily on the site to not have to wait for a decision.”
The Jacksonville District also benefited from the the expertise of the Florida National Guard for advice during the build out.
“The partnership the Florida National Guard established with the Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of the Miami Beach alternate care facility has been exceptional,” said Col. Ricardo Roig, the Florida Guard’s Task Force 50th commander. “We are grateful for the Corps’ hard work getting this facility completed, and are working with our state partners to provide all necessary support to ensure it is ready to operate.”
As the owner of the convention center, the city of Miami Beach was also a large part of the success in completing the project early, Kelly said.
That cooperation was especially important considering that the facility was designed to provide flexibility to local medical systems should COVID-19 strain those services.
"We are grateful to the Army Corps of Engineers for swiftly constructing the alternate care facility at our Convention Center - a precaution to assure that we are fully prepared for a worst-case scenario and that our community will never face shortages of beds or equipment,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. "Hopefully, it won't ever be occupied."