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Hurricane Rita Spares Major Research Institutions

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Science  30 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5744, pp. 2143
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5744.2143

Scientists in Texas breathed a sigh of relief this week after Hurricane Rita weakened from its category 5 peak intensity and sidestepped Galveston and Houston. But the near-miss still allowed several major biomedical research institutions to field-test their procedures for weathering such a storm. “We really dodged a bullet on this one,” says Larry Donehower, who researches aging at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and lost thousands of mice to storm flooding in 2001.

Rita did trigger an evacuation of the area, shutting down universities and NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and forcing Donehower and other investigators to protect their research materials and data. The anxiety was heightened by recent events in New Orleans, where flooding and power outages following Hurricane Katrina took a heavy toll on research samples and displaced many researchers (Science, 23 September, p. 1980).

On the barrier island of Galveston, the site of one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history in 1900, pre-Rita worries focused on the University of Texas Medical Branch's (UTMB's) highly secure labs for studying deadly infectious agents such as viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever. “We've thought about this for a long time, obviously,” says Stanley Lemon, director of UTMB's Institute for Human Infections and Immunity. At biosafety level 3 labs and a smaller BSL-4 facility, researchers shut down experiments, autoclaved cultures, euthanized several hundred research mice, and fumigated labs, Lemon says. Samples were locked up in secure freezers plugged into backup generators and stocked with dry ice, and a skeleton crew waited out the storm. But Rita caused only minor damage to air handlers on the roof of a building with a shuttered BSL-3 lab. There will, however, be monetary “costs associated with shutting down experiments,” Lemon says.

Fleeing Rita.

Texans, including researchers, faced traffic jams as they tried to evacuate coastal areas.

CREDIT: JAMES NIELSEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In Houston, research institutions bracing for Rita hoped they had heeded the lessons of tropical storm Allison. Flooding from that 2001 storm caused nearly $2 billion in damages at the Texas Medical Center and drowned more than 35,000 research animals at the complex's University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC) and Baylor College of Medicine (Science, 22 June 2001, p. 2226; 27 July 2001, p. 589).

UTHSC has since installed submarine doors in its medical school building, and animal facilities are no longer on ground floors, says spokesperson Scott Merville. At Baylor, there are still basement vivariums, but they now have “multiple layers of submarine doors,” says President Peter Traber. The campus is also surrounded by a dike, with floodgates at entrances. Generators, once at ground level, now sit on higher floors.

As it happened, Houston received less than 3 centimeters of rain, and Baylor suffered no damage—“not even a broken window,” says spokesperson Claire Bassett. “I was actually pretty confident we'd survive it okay,” says Donehower. His group taped windows, covered computers, and left as the campus evacuated. All but one of the five people in his group turned back, however, after spending up to 9 hours inching along jammed highways. Donehower was back in the lab on Monday, and, he said, “everything is slowly returning to normal.”

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