Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States, made landfall yesterday morning (August 29) along the coast of Louisiana. The Category 4 hurricane, which has now weakened to a tropical storm, briefly reversed the flow of the Mississippi River; cut off power to nearly 2 million people, including the entire city of New Orleans; and led to the closure of multiple college and university campuses through Tuesday. Many areas have been flooded, and the extent of the storm damage, including the death toll, is not yet clear.
In comments today quoted by ABC News, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said that levees had held against the storm surge, but that damage had nevertheless been “catastrophic.”
As Ida made its way north into Mississippi, The Scientist spoke with some of the researchers whose labs were in its path about their experiences.
Campuses that remain closed today include Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, the University of New Orleans, and Tulane University in New Orleans. At Tulane, students—including those isolating at nearby hotels due to COVID-19—were advised to shelter in place away from windows. Late on Sunday night, the university confirmed that essential buildings such as dorms and the community center were running on emergency power, and this morning, the university announced that a damage assessment and recovery team has been sent to the campus for a preliminary sweep.
Gregory Bix, the director of the Clinical Neuroscience Research Center at Tulane’s medical school, tells The Scientist that he and his family evacuated to Florida on Friday. “I just didn’t like the look of the way the forecast seemed to be trending,” he says, adding that he believes the university has done a good job of preparing the campus to weather the storm. Tulane “is really tried and tested when it comes to this sort of thing . . . and I think there were a lot of lessons learned after Katrina,” Bix says.
As of Monday afternoon, Bix says he was unaware of any serious structural damage or loss of power to the center’s labs, based on email updates he receives several times a day. Roughly three-quarters of the staff evacuated, but the remaining members are visiting the campus as designated emergency personnel to check on labs and tend to the many research animals. Tulane purchased dry ice ahead of the storm, and the most “precious” cell lines are being kept in cryogenic storage that doesn’t require power, Bix says. Other hard-to-replace commodities, such as special reagents, were put in refrigerators or freezers connected to emergency reserve power, he says.
At Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, according to a tweet from Dean of Students Gabe Willis, the campus was without power as of early Monday morning and cell phone reception was intermittent.
Jacqueline Guendouzi, a linguist and the head of the university’s Communication Sciences and Disorders department, tells The Scientist in an email that prior to leaving campus, she backed up all of her lab’s data onto Google Drive and memory sticks. While she has yet to receive an official update on potential damage to the building where she works, “the wind was worse than any I have experienced in 20 years,” she says, adding that “lab buildings have generators but Ida was so strong that they may have been damaged.”
At the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), a field station in Chauvin on the Gulf Coast, “It became clear mid-day on Friday that Ida would be a major storm and that it would hit us or come very very close,” ecologist Stephanie Archer tells The Scientist in a direct Twitter message. She collected her hard drives and any data that hadn’t been backed up to the cloud, covered lab equipment with plastic, and evacuated.
Archer says all the faculty and most of the staff at LUMCON have evacuated and that “it sounds like the LUMCON family is all physically safe and accounted for.” However, she says they lost contact with the marine center before the eye of the storm hit, so she doesn’t know how the facility has fared. She adds that no one was keeping research animals at the facility at the time the hurricane struck.
“My main concerns are with the people and their homes,” says Archer. “If those are OK the science will be OK. It will be a long road but we will be back and we will support each other along the way,” she says, adding that the support—ranging from food and shelter to lab space—LUMCON has received from faculty at other Louisiana institutions has been “overwhelming.”