Riding Out the Storm

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Science  09 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5741, pp. 1657
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5741.1657

Immunologist Seth Pincus survived Hurricane Katrina, but much of his research may not. Evacuated from Louisiana State University Children's Hospital in New Orleans on Thursday, Pincus left hundreds of fragile blood and tissue samples—representing years of HIV and other infectious disease research—to an uncertain fate.

Pincus, 57, studies the interaction of antibodies and pathogens and directs the hospital's Research Institute for Children. Throughout the storm, he and several hundred other hospital employees stayed to look after 100 remaining patients, as well as research samples belonging to him and colleagues. “We probably held out the longest,” Pincus says. “A lot of people in New Orleans wound up abandoning their work. I think every scientist there was worried about what's more important—my experiments or my life.”

The low point came 2 days after the hurricane, Pincus says. The staff realized that the lack of clean water, combined with fears of looters, posed a health risk that would force them to abandon the hospital—and the hundreds of research mice and rats that they had managed to save. Rather than let the animals starve, dehydrate, or overheat, Pincus euthanized them with pentobarbital. Then he packed what he could into insulated containers, hoping to keep cell lines and microbial collections cold until they could be transported to Baton Rouge. “Everything I own and do is [normally] in the -80°C freezer and liquid-nitrogen tanks,” Pincus says.


In the end, the staff didn't want to wait for the planned afternoon exit convoy and began to leave hours ahead of schedule. “It was so hectic and crazy,” Pincus says. “We had to leave probably the most important specimens.” Samples packed for the trip, but abandoned, may last for a week, he says. The freezer was still running on generator power when Pincus left—but will automatically shut off unless the New Orleans SWAT team using the building as a command center keeps it running.

Pincus plans to settle in at a temporary base for the Children's Hospital set up in Baton Rouge. Although the National Institutes of Health has extended grant deadlines for flood victims, he wonders how New Orleans researchers will stay competitive, with delays of months and the loss of research samples and animal colonies. Some colleagues, he says, may choose to go elsewhere. “That's the big concern for New Orleans: If we can't get back up and going within 2 to 3 months, anyone who can go anywhere else will.”

Pincus tries to remain hopeful. “I may have to start all over again,” he says. “But maybe this is an opportunity to take some novel approaches. In some ways, it may even be liberating.”

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