Research Labs Evacuate Ahead of Irma

Scientists leave behind ongoing experiments as the Category 5 hurricane whips through the Caribbean and heads toward the U.S. mainland.

By | September 7, 2017

Hurricane Irma, September 4-5, 2017WIKIMEDIA, NOAAHurricane Irma has destroyed islands in the Caribbean, left 1 million residents without power in Puerto Rico, and killed at least 10 people. As the Category 5 hurricane takes aim at southern Florida, mandatory evacuations have pushed tens of thousands of people northward.

Mote Marine Laboratory’s new coral research facility on Summerland Key has been secured, Robert Etti, the center’s housing manager, tells The Scientist in an email. Most of the employees have evacuated with the rest of Monroe County residents, as ordered by authorities. The campus’s executive director, David Vaughan, and one other staff member have stayed behind to watch over the corals.

Vaughan says they took precautions, such as dividing corals between inside and outside facilities. “We have half of our broodstock genotypes split so that we do not have all our eggs in one basket,” he writes in an email.

Meteorologists expect Irma to whack southern Florida over the weekend, and then move northward along the East Coast. In Miami, colleges including the University of Miami and Florida International University cancelled classes beginning yesterday (September 6).

Nagi Ayad, a brain cancer researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine, says he and the members of his lab have completed a university-issued checklist that includes backing up all their data to servers, unplugging nonessential equipment, connecting essential equipment to backup systems, and refilling liquid nitrogen tanks. The researchers also had to triage their research animals, letting the team who will be caring for them know which would be the most essential to save in the event that the animal facility needs to be evacuated.

“There are many people who have decided to stay and many people who’ve decided to already start driving north,” Ayad says. One of his students felt conflicted because he was about to finish a mouse experiment on medulloblastoma. “He really didn’t want to leave without knowing the results of the experiment, because he had worked so hard for the experiment for a full month,” Ayad says. “Ultimately, he decided to stay one more day and then leave after that.”

Just two weeks ago, researchers in Texas were making the same decisions as Hurricane Harvey approached the Gulf Coast, leaving their labs and experiments in the hands of so-called rideout teams who kept essential operations running.

See “Flooding in Texas Blocks Researchers from Campus

As of today (September 7), the medical campus at the University of Miami is closed to all but essential personnel, says Delia Gutman, who manages a cancer immunology lab there. Gutman has been at the university for 30 years, and says she prepares for hurricanes year-round by routinely cryopreserving embryos that could be used to restart transgenic mice lines, if needed.

During hurricane season, which runs from July to November, members of Gutman’s lab take additional precautions, such as checking that freezers are working properly and storing important cell lines in more than one place. Before leaving the lab this week, they covered lab notebooks and valuable equipment with special plastic, stored the lab notebooks in a windowless room, and pulled equipment away from the windows.

“The mood is ‘better safe than sorry,’” says Michelle Kerr, communications specialist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, which conducts ecological studies statewide. Facilities of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have closed in several south Florida counties. Fieldwork has been put on hold, says Kerr, while “staff is physically preparing buildings and equipment, moving boats, relocating trucks. . . . At the headquarters, we’re instructed to move electronics away from windows.”

Irma has clocked in as one of the strongest recorded hurricanes in the Atlantic. “Our [coral research] building was created to withstand a cat 5 so we’re feeling pretty good about that situation, as good as we can feel,” says Shelby Isaacson, Mote’s public relations manager. As for Mote’s primary facilities in Sarasota, where it’s uncertain if the hurricane will directly hit, “we’re just taking it day by day.”

Jef Akst, Kerry Grens, Aggie Mika, and Shawna Williams contributed reporting.

 

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