As Harvey hovers, researchers take stock

After a weekend spent bracing against record-breaking rains and catastrophic flooding, many scientists remain in suspense about how Hurricane Harvey will affect their research. Many are still unable to return to their labs and field sites to assess potential damage. But some researchers are beginning to get a look at the storm’s aftermath.

“Substantial” damage at University of Texas marine institute

Marine researchers are facing “substantial” water damage to one of two major laboratory buildings at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, Texas, according to Communications Coordinator Sally Palmer. And five instrument stations in a nearby estuary that transmitted real-time weather and environmental data blinked offline this past Saturday night as Hurricane Harvey roared ashore.

“We’re hoping that at least some of the instruments are still there somewhere, but haven’t been able to check yet,” Palmer tells ScienceInsider.

The good news is that none of the institute’s 200 staff members were hurt as the storm made landfall just a few dozen kilometers to the east of the coastal station, which focuses on conducting ecological, fisheries, and biogeochemistry research. But many employees have yet to be able to return to their homes in nearby communities, and the station’s “operations are suspended until further notice,” Palmer says.

Preliminary surveys suggest a laboratory primarily used for fisheries research and aquaculture experienced some flooding but avoided major damage, Palmer says. Emergency electrical generators kicked on during the height of the storm, and researchers hope that kept pumps and bubblers going in tanks full of larval fish and other aquatic creatures.

A second building full of laboratory space wasn’t so lucky. The hurricane appears to have torn its roof and damaged facilities inside, Palmer says. Response teams are now assessing the damage, making sure laboratory chemicals are safely contained, and setting up security at the site.

Reports suggest a third institute facility in nearby Rockport, Texas, might have sustained worse damage, Palmer says. The building, used primarily for public outreach and education, sits just 20 meters from the shore near the center of the city, which was hard hit by the storm.

The institute’s fleet of small boats, which were moved to a warehouse before the storm, are apparently safe. And a former shrimp trawler used for education programs rode out the tempest in a sheltered harbor. Still, Palmer says it could be weeks before the institute can resume regular operations.

In the meantime, Palmer says that—like many other institute employees—she is dealing with some storm damage on the homefront. Winds knocked down the backyard fence at her residence in suburb of Corpus Christi, Texas, and it will need to be replaced. —David Malakoff

At medical center in Houston, optimism about flood defenses

So far, researchers appear optimistic that flood defenses will hold at the Texas Medical Center, the behemoth complex of hospitals and medical research labs in Houston that includes Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the Texas A&M Health Sciences Center.

Raghu Kalluri, a cancer biologist at MD Anderson, managed to return to his lab this morning to find everything in working order: Freezers full of important samples had been protected by backup generators, and facilities housing research animals had stayed dry. Kalluri, who 5 years ago saw colleagues’ research devastated by damage from Hurricane Sandy while at Harvard Medical School in Boston, was pleasantly surprised by the center’s response. “I’m quite impressed of how they’ve prepared themselves,” he says.

Several researchers say the center is benefiting from hard lessons learned from Tropical Storm Allison, which in 2001 breached aging dykes at Texas Medical Center and flooded hospital basements, killing thousands of research rodents and thawing frozen tissue samples. The complex now has a system of flood doors that sealed off basements and first floor facilities as water levels rose over the weekend. A spokesperson for Baylor described a system of gates and concrete walls rising 15 meters above sea level.

“Disruption of research should be modest unless the situation worsens,” predicts cancer researcher Kent Osborne of Baylor. But he and others have been unable to visit their labs, as water continues to block roads to the medical center.

“Maybe the flood control efforts after Allison are working,” says infectious disease researcher Herbert Dupont of the University of Texas Health Science Center, “but we need the storm to move along!” —Kelly Servick

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