Gulf researchers brace for Rita

Preparations for incoming hurricane include evacuating, killing experiments and freezing select agents

By | September 23, 2005

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 The Scientist that he and his colleagues began an "orderly process" of shutting down the labs on Monday (September 19). "We all know we live on a barrier island," he said. "UTMB has been planning for this." Still, he admitted that the last few days were less than enjoyable. "It's obviously very disruptive to have to terminate everything," he said, and he expects to be set back at least 10 to 14 days.

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 The Scientist in an email that he stored research samples in freezers, and key cell lines were in a stock center in New York. "Data is backed up and in a half-ton safe, and lab members leaving the area have data with them," he added.

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 Drosophila with her so that she didn't lose the stocks, and left one set behind. Lab members generally traded off duplicate samples, hoping that, between everybody, things would be preserved. They wrapped lab notebooks in plastic, to keep them dry in case the windows shattered, Matthews said.

"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 The Scientist in an email.

Janet Braam, also at Rice, told The Scientist she didn't even bother trying to leave Houston when she heard about the traffic. Since she works with Arabidopsis, it was relatively easy to pack up, she said. (She and her colleagues placed seed stock in boxes away from windows.) The building housing the lab was designed to withstand strong hurricanes, and Braam said she believed it would survive. Still, she added it was "absolutely" difficult to shut down experiments in progress. "It's very hard, but you've got to weigh what's the most important thing," Braam said. "And experiments can be redone."

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.

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