After Hurricane Ida, researchers take stock

As Hurricane Ida pounded New Orleans Sunday night, Tulane University virologist Robert Garry bedded down on a couch outside his lab, girding for the worst. It was exactly 16 years since Hurricane Katrina had flooded the city, ultimately causing the deaths of more than 1800 people and damage costing more than $150 billion in states along the Gulf of Mexico. Many scientists lost everything in the storm.

Thankfully, Ida was not a Katrina-level disaster for the region’s researchers. While students and most research staff evacuated from campuses in New Orleans and surrounding areas, improved levees held back the storm surge. And although the city lost power, academic medical centers were prepared with generators that kept freezers and incubators running, and researchers executed plans to store cell lines in containers of liquid nitrogen.

“We are a lot better organized now,” Garry wrote in an email. His lab, which lost blood and tissue samples to Katrina, briefly had a freezer shut down this time but did not lose any biological samples, he added. “Preparation paid off.”

Some 130 kilometers southwest of the city, a major marine research center near Chauvin, Louisiana, also appears to have avoided the worst outcome. The storm did not significantly damage laboratories at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium’s (LUMCON’s) W. J. DeFelice Marine Center, staffers say, although several vehicles were destroyed and failed generators imperiled some stored samples.

However, research operations across the Gulf region will require time to return to normal. Much of Louisiana and portions of adjoining states are still without electricity, although power began to return yesterday to downtown New Orleans. And the city has spotty phone service and gas and water shortages. That means lost time for research labs. Some research staff and students are also dealing with severely damaged homes.

Still, said Steve Nelson, dean of the Louisiana State University (LSU) Health New Orleans School of Medicine, “It’s night and day compared to Katrina.”

Not Katrina redux

In 2005, Katrina was a disaster for biomedical labs at Tulane and the LSU Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC). Floodwaters as high as several meters destroyed generators, power was out for weeks, thousands of mice and other animals died or had to be euthanized, years’ worth of cell lines and tissue samples thawed.

Ida, however, did not bring flooding to campuses. Even if it had, power equipment and generators are now located on higher floors, say officials at the two universities. Lab staff now prepare for hurricanes by putting biological samples in liquid nitrogen; some also send copies of key cell lines to colleagues in other states. Lee Hamm, dean of Tulane’s School of Medicine, notes that Tulane also now has generators for freezer farms to store biological specimens.

However, generators only provide partial power. At the LSUHSC this week, with air conditioning limited or off in some buildings and outdoor temperatures close to 32°C, animal care staff made “Herculean” efforts to keep mice and other research animals cool using portable air conditioners and ice, says neuroscientist Nicholas Gilpin. Although Nelson is confident that LSUHSC suffered no major losses of research resources, at Tulane, Hamm says it is “too early to know for certain.”

Another worry has arisen for LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine computational biologist Carmen Canavier, who emailed ScienceInsider Tuesday using an internet hot spot she found in her front yard. She is less concerned about samples than about meeting a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant deadline that’s 1 month away. Nelson says his staff has been in touch with NIH about extending grant deadlines, as it usually does after disasters. “NIH has a history of being helpful in this situation,” Hamm agrees.

Until power is fully restored, many research staff are stranded where they evacuated, including Florida, Mississippi, and Texas. When they return, some will be dealing with damage to their homes. Concerned about how his 15 trainees and other staff are paying for housing and other costs, Gilpin started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money. It collected more than $6500 in 1 day. “The scientific community stepped up and contributed in an extremely generous way, and I am very thankful for that,” he says.

By Wednesday evening, power was restored at LSUHSC and Tulane medical campus buildings. The power utility has made hospitals and the medical schools a priority. “Three days after the storm, we are much more optimistic than we were at this point after Katrina,” Hamm said yesterday.

In the eye of the storm

At LUMCON, researchers knew last week “that this would be the worst storm [the institution] had faced in a very long time,” says Stephanie Archer, an ecologist who works at the laboratory.

Craig McClain, LUMCON’s executive director, wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday, “I have weathered many storms during my tenure as Executive Director, [but] Hurricane Ida was something entirely different. LUMCON and the communities that surround it stared directly into the eye of a category four hurricane.”

Luckily, he says, LUMCON researchers have a well-rehearsed plan to evacuate people and equipment, back up data, and secure anything that can’t be moved. Once everyone was out (including LUMCON’s emotional support turtle, Tito) and the facility was secured, they watched the storm on the facility’s web-connected cameras. The cameras went dark at 2 p.m. on Sunday, just as the eye wall hit.

On Tuesday, McClain got back to LUMCON to assess the damage, after a day driving through what he describes as “an often-incomprehensible amount of damage” in the surrounding communities of Houma, Chauvin, and Cocodrie. At the marine center, he found that the generators had failed, possibly compromising research samples kept in the deep freeze. They represent more than 10 years’ worth of work, he says. In addition, many of the center’s offices, apartments, and dorms flooded after windows broke and shutter systems failed. LUMCON also lost a boat and a truck at its Houma campus.

But labs were mostly spared, and McClain doesn’t foresee any negative long-term impacts on most research projects. In fact, he says, the storm could prove to be a research opportunity. He expects scientists in the coming weeks to sample nearby marshes to examine the hurricane’s impacts.

In meantime, McClain is focusing on getting the generators and heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system running; cleaning up the wreckage; and readying the dorm area to serve as temporary accommodations for staff. What’s most important, he says, is supporting the staff and surrounding community whose homes were destroyed or damaged.

“All of our friends, our families, and our colleagues are in a state of disruption,” McClain says. “I can repair the lab in the next few weeks, but it’s the community that’s going to take more time.”

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