Ohio Ag Campus Digs Out From Tornado

Liz is a staff writer for Science.

More than a week after a tornado blew through the Wooster campus of Ohio State University, researchers were finally invited back today en masse to figure out the next steps for returning to work. On 16 September, 209-kilometer-per-hour winds tore through the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center late in the afternoon, damaging or destroying a dozen greenhouses, three buildings, and 800 trees in a research arboretum. Home for 75 faculty and about 80 graduate students doing agricultural, environmental sciences, and bioproducts research, the campus is still officially closed.

For plant molecular biologist Esther van der Knaap, a flattened greenhouse means a setback of many weeks, or perhaps even a year, for her lab's research on the genetics of fruit shape and development in tomatoes. Power losses caused growth chambers to deviate from their set temperature and humidity, so plants died. "I have a big National Science Foundation grant", she says, and no plants to collect data from. The community has offered greenhouse space, but because of specific environmental requirements for her tomatoes, she's not sure she can use it. Instead, she's hoping for the quick erection of temporary greenhouses. "We're going to start sowing our first seeds in the lab on Monday and just hope the greenhouses are ready" when they sprout, she says. She is one of many on campus scrambling to pick up the pieces.

Soybean pathologist Anne Dorrance was less worried about plants in the greenhouse than DNA and related materials in her department's freezers. The department had installed backup generators on the most critical freezers but was unable to turn those on at first because of a gas leak. Fortunately, the dairy on campus willingly provided ample supplies of dry ice, she says, so essential material was saved.

According to center Director Steven Slack, damages are still being assessed. But given that the back half of the agricultural engineering building was ripped off and a new greenhouse was destroyed, he expects repairs will cost millions of dollars. Already much cleanup has been done. Even though the campus is not yet safe for the public, "it looks 10,000 percent better than a week ago," says Larry Madden, a plant pathologist. And the news was good at today's town hall meeting. "We're pretty sure we'll have fairly routine business on Monday," he predicts.