The Southern Nevada Health District's downtown headquarters is one earthquake or strong wind away from collapsing, according to a detailed structural assessment released Monday.
Health district management shut down the 50-year-old Shadow Lane building indefinitely because of structural issues including fractured walls, cracked joints and deteriorating ceiling braces. The structural issues also could pose a risk to the community if services are not quickly returned to their fullest level, health officials added.
Health officials said they also knew there were serious issues with the structure from previous assessments but were unaware of how severe they were until this recent report was finished.
Dozens of people on Monday morning found several services had been relocated or temporarily suspended after being turned away by health workers at the building's locked entrance and directed to other locations throughout the valley.
Harumi Rivers frantically pulled at the doors, desperate to get a health card for her first day at a new bartending job. She finally saw the large posters announcing the closure and where to find more information about services.
"Are you kidding me?" Rivers said. "I hate it, I'm so mad. I won't get to work on time, and it's my first day. How will that make me look?"
A health worker shrugged before handing the 28-year-old a list of alternate locations and apologizing profusely.
OLD SUPPORT SYSTEM
The building was constructed without a "diaphragm" system used to support structural stress, deformations or displacement caused by wind or earthquakes, according to engineers with Walter P. Moore and Associates Inc., who did the report for the health district.
The building has relied on a gypsum panel system, which has been outdated for 30 years, for support.
The masonry walls could resist wind gusts of 35-50 mph, although Clark County code requires the walls to withstand 90 mph winds. According to the National Weather Service, the Las Vegas valley experiences 50 to 55 wind gusts of about 35 mph each year and about one or two days of wind gusts above 60 mph. The windiest month is April.
In recent years, attempts had been made to shore up the structure, but engineers wrote that repairs might require more money than the building is worth.
Some health district employees were moved to other buildings. About 30 others were placed on paid administrative leave while expected to remain on call.
Lorraine Oliver, a district community health nurse working with babies who have recently left the neonatal intensive care unit, said she was on-call because her files and equipment are stuck in the closed building.
Equipment and files won't be accessed until a safety plan is put into place.
"I can't put mothers in touch with resources," Oliver said. "I'm uncomfortable canceling all the people in my books, and I'm not comfortable not working."
About 200 employees worked at the main building, but the number of daily visitors was not immediately known.
"I don't feel anyone in my position would have any other choice but to take the actions we did," said Dr. Lawrence Sands, chief health officer. "Our first priority is the safety of our employees and the clients who use our services. I don't think it's right for people to live with this kind of uncertainty in a building that has questions about its safety."
This wasn't the first time questions were raised about the safety of the building.
In 2007, a health district inspector died after being exposed to toxic mold at the main office, according to a 2009 lawsuit filed by his family.
Dan Pauluk, 57, died from mold poisoning.
The wrongful death lawsuit alleged relatives and a caregiver suffered "cross-contamination" in their Henderson home. The Pauluks' lawsuit also said three health district employees knew about the mold problem at the Shadow Lane building and tried to cover it up.
Widow Wendy Pauluk said in a statement Monday that the announcement "comes 10 years too late for my family."
"That sick HQ building likewise injured and killed many other SNHD employees over a span of several years," she said. "It is disingenuous for SNHD to now claim it is surprised its building is found unsafe."
According to the statement, Pauluk is undergoing emergency medical treatment for complications resulting from toxic mold contamination that she believes was brought into her home by her late husband.
Morley Gordon, 82, a friend of Dan Pauluk, said an OSHA health inspector examined the building and found two different types of deadly mold right above the acoustical tile in the executive wing of the building.
Water leaks in the ceiling above Dan Pauluk's desk caused the mold, Gordon said.
"Why are you talking about a structural problem in that building?" Gordon said, still frustrated by his friend's death.
Health officials did not comment on the mold issue, which was not addressed in the structural assessment.
Jennifer Sizemore, a district spokeswoman, said health officials were expecting to move from the building after an assessment in August that uncovered serious issues but nothing as severe as what the latest report details.
The county building, which is in Las Vegas city limits, is under the control of the health district.
At an emergency meeting of the health board late Monday night, it was discovered that there is no formal document that divides the responsibility for building upkeep and safety among Las Vegas, Clark County and the district.
The engineering report comes on the heels of oral arguments heard by the Nevada Supreme Court about a lawsuit between the health district and the Clark County Commission over budget issues. The dispute over funding for a replacement headquarters began last year when the health district said commissioners failed to provide $15.9 million in required funding.
The district argued that according to state statute, its share of the assessed property tax should have amounted to about $22.5 million. Commissioners approved funding for $5.69 million. A lawsuit ensued and a Clark County district judge in August ruled in the health district's favor. The commission appealed the ruling to the Nevada Supreme Court, which held oral arguments in the case April 2.
The state's high court has yet to issue a ruling.
North Las Vegas Councilwoman Anita Wood, who sits on the health district board, asked whether the board and the district could ask the court for an expedited ruling because of the severity of the problem.
"It's unfortunate, the timing of it," Sands, of the health district, said. "The reason we shut it down is because we received this report with these findings. Everybody's pretty emphatic about the building not being occupied in its current condition."
For more information on the availability of services, visit the health district's website at www.SNHD.info or call 702-759-4636.
Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-455-4519.