Gulf coast researchers working in the path of incoming Hurricane Rita – featuring winds clocking in at well over 100 miles per hour -- began preparing for her arrival far in advance, destroying and freezing samples, ending experiments, and locking away dangerous and unique materials. Still, weeks or more of experiments could be lost, they say.
Stanley Lemon at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston told
To prepare for the hurricane, Lemon and his colleagues shut down the institution's biosafety level 3 and 4 facilities by terminating experiments in progress, destroying active cultures, and placing stocks of select agents, such as anthrax and hemorrhagic fever, along with other viruses and bacteria, in "very secure, locked freezers" on site. Experimental mice and other lab animals are generally kept at high elevations, Lemon noted, and are being looked after by a crew of animal handlers.
If the laboratories lose power, emergency generators will kick in, Lemon predicted. And if that fails, he and his colleagues stuffed freezers with dry ice, which should keep the contents cold without power for a few days, he added.
The researcher noted that most of the killed experiments were short-term, so nothing has been lost "irrevocably." Still, he admitted he is concerned about losing unique transgenic mouse lines, which could have a long-term impact on the research.
Richard Gomer at Rice University in Houston, Tx., told
He noted that a "fairly expensive" three week protocol had to be "scrapped." Gomer said he was also concerned about losing power for long periods of time, despite generators and dry ice. "If the freezers go out we will lose antibodies, which take months and thousands of dollars to replace," he said.
Gomer added that he suspected most researchers in Houston were better prepared for natural disasters following the floods from Hurricane Allison, which ravaged the region in 2001.
Kathleen Matthews at Rice University said that she and her family tried to leave Houston but returned home after covering only 25 miles in two hours. At the lab, Matthews said one colleague took a set of each line of
"No one is ever really prepared for catastrophic loss, but we do have hurricanes from time to time, and there is a sense of 'esprit d'corps' to help each other, to get things as safely positioned as feasible, and to do what needs to be done when the storm is over to get things back on track," Matthews told
Janet Braam, also at Rice, told
On Friday (September 23), the National Weather Service issued a warning about Hurricane Rita for southwestern Louisiana to the upper coasts of Texas, advising of maximum sustained winds up to 140 miles per hour, and rainfall accumulation in excess of 25 inches over the next several days.