Allison Hits Houston Research Community

After Tropical Storm Allison struck Houston last month, researcher Jocelyne Bachevalier wasn't thinking about science when she learned that her 47 monkeys had died at the University of Texas Health Science Center. "We got very attached to these animals, because we work every single day with them," says Bachevalier, a professor of neurobiology and anatomy. "They've become our pets .... They react to their names, It's very painful." Bachevalier had used the monkeys in her research on the amygdala,

Harvey Black
Jul 22, 2001
After Tropical Storm Allison struck Houston last month, researcher Jocelyne Bachevalier wasn't thinking about science when she learned that her 47 monkeys had died at the University of Texas Health Science Center. "We got very attached to these animals, because we work every single day with them," says Bachevalier, a professor of neurobiology and anatomy. "They've become our pets .... They react to their names, It's very painful." Bachevalier had used the monkeys in her research on the amygdala, a small structure in the brain that researchers believe plays a key role in emotional behavior.

Her reaction is not unique. "People worked with dogs or rabbits or mice or rats, have cared for and fed these animals, in some cases for years," says George Stancel, interim vice-president for research and dean, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, UT Health Science Center. "There's a genuine loss there because of that relationship."

In early June, tropical storm Allison pummeled the Houston area with 28 inches of rain, taking 22 human lives and causing an estimated $4.88 billion in damage, according to the Houston Chronicle. Its toll on this city's research community was also extensive: while dollar figures are still being calculated, those interviewed spoke of the years worth of work lost, the equipment damaged, the animals killed, the refrigerated samples feared contaminated, and the infrastructures that were ruined.

The scope of the destruction at the eight-story UT building, for example, is immense. Between eight and 10 million gallons of water entered the building, Stancel estimates. The entire basement, home to computer equipment, animals, imaging machines, and a cyclotron, was flooded. Large sections of cinderblock walls were knocked out. The water climbed to the ground floor. On June 25, Carol Alderson, assistant grants policy officer, Office of Extramural Research, National Institutes of Health, toured the center's basements and those at the nearby Baylor College of Medicine, where the floodwaters also caused extensive damage. "They're cleaned up. They're pumping in dry air to get the stench out, to keep it sanitary. But it looks like a construction site or a war zone," she says.

Research Losses

Most research laboratories at UT are on the top floors and therefore were unaffected by water, says Stancel. But because the controls for heating, ventilation, and electricity were in the basement, "all of the research laboratories were cut off from power and ventilation for at least several days before we could get emergency power restored, " he says. To researchers who have tissue and other biological samples in those non-functioning freezers, the power loss could mean that frustrating, time-consuming work lies ahead. Because even if the temperatures stayed below freezing, they might have risen enough to damage the samples. And, only one way exists to tell if this has occurred: "Going back and checking the activity of every protein we have in that freezer before we can do an experiment, " says Carmen Dessauer, assistant professor of integrative biology and pharmacology, UT. Dessauer's research focuses on adenylate cyclase, an enzyme that is part of the system controlling a wide range of functions including heart rate and learning. "If I lost every protein it would be six months to a year to recover. What we've lost most is time," she says.

Baylor, located on the same large campus known as the Texas Medical Center, has one of this country's three academic human genome sequencing centers. Researchers here are looking for genes responsible for human disease, making disease models and inserting the defective gene into a mouse. They too are going through the frustrating process of assessing their losses and discovering whether collaborators have copies of their mouse models.

An added two years of work is facing Michael Blackburn, assistant professor of chemistry and microbiology, UT. In 1992, he began developing transgenic mice that were susceptible to asthma in hopes of developing a treatment for this widespread and potentially fatal disorder. Allison's wall of water wiped out his colony. Fortunately, collaborators elsewhere have copies of his mice and are shipping them to him. But he still isn't out of the woods: while he will be able to rebuild his supply, he will still have to screen them for any pathogens they might have acquired.

The work of graduate students suffered the same fate as the more experienced researchers. One of Blackburn's graduate students lost her thesis project to the flooding. "She was actually working with a double knockout [mouse model] she developed," says Blackburn. "We can get it back after two years of mating. It's just going to set her back that much. Those are the ones who really suffer, the students who need these mice to complete their projects. We need to find ways to support them financially and motivate them to go on."

Stancel agrees, but says the nature of that help will likely be decided on a case-by-case basis. Baylor's James Patrick, vice president and dean of research, similarly promises that grad students and post docs who have suffered losses will be cared for. "No one's going to be arbitrarily cut off from the chance of completing their work," he says.

Mountains of Paperwork Ahead

Photo: William Dupre, University of Houston

Houston is no stranger to flooding. This 1994 photo shows the high watermark and charring from flooding and fires.

For researchers whose work has been affected, NIH does not have any hard and fast rules on extending their grants, says Alderson. "We're taking this very carefully because we haven't been through this before. We don't have blanket rules for natural disasters," she points out.

In one hypothetical example, she says that a researcher just starting on a four-year grant project might not need extra money or an extension. The total grant might be enough to compensate for any loss of time. "It may not, but we can address it at the end of the four years," she says. On the other hand, she notes, researchers just wrapping up their work on a grant might not be able to get back into their labs. They could possibly get extensions. "We want investigators to contact their scientific program officials [at NIH] if they are suffering losses or delays to their research," she says.

Along with the research delays, infrastructure issues, and lost student projects, researchers are also faced with the additional burden of cataloguing lost equipment. This can be a difficult and demanding exercise, fraught with financial pitfalls. "In my conference calls with my staff at Baylor, they have a lot of staff working on what their insurance companies and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) can provide," says Alderson. "NIH is very concerned. We don't want there to be any duplication of benefits."

Within FEMA's field office to deal with the overall disaster, is a special task force for the Texas Medical Center of which Baylor College of Medicine and the UT Health Science Center are parts. According to FEMA spokesperson, Brett Hansard, the agency is the primary coordinator for recovery efforts. During what Hansard expects to be a several month involvement by FEMA, the task force will help officials at Baylor, the Health Science Center, and the other institutions at the Medical Center, through the process of applying for federal disaster aid. FEMA can only reimburse for efforts to fight the flood and for clean up efforts, says Hansard.

At UT, Stancel says a team of faculty and administrators has started submitting financial requests to FEMA. "That's going to take a long time," Stancel says. "Part of our challenge will be to ensure that we don't put in duplicate requests for replacement support to NIH, insurance companies, and to FEMA. We want to be very careful and not even hint that we are doing any double-dipping," he says.

Stancel and Patrick say they can't yet give a loss estimate. At Baylor, Patrick says the process of computing a figure is painstaking. "We have consultants that have come into help document everything we need to insure our claims our complete and to make sure nothing gets double-billed," he says. While the loss of goods from suppliers can be easily computed, the loss of time and effort for other items, such as making cell lines from patient biopsies, requires much more effort. "We have produced a large document that tells you down to how many pipettes it takes to produce a cell line," he says.

The losses, the effort involved in documenting them, and trying to revive the research so brutally truncated make for a "pretty traumatic experience," says Ponnada Narayana, director of magnetic resonance imaging research, UT. He lost an MRI scanner, several computer workstations and large amounts of data. His attitude reflects that of other researchers in Houston: "You pick up the pieces and move on. As a scientist, I'm used to frustration."

Harvey Black (73773.2227@compuserve.com) is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.