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Texas Universities Weather Hurricane Ike

15 September 2008 (All day)
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Smiley N. Pooll/Getty Images

In Ike's wake. The hurricane flooded much of Galveston but did not cause extensive damage to research facilities on the island.

First the good news: Universities and research institutions in Texas suffered far less damage than some had feared from Hurricane Ike. Now, the bad news: It could take weeks for the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) on the flooded island of Galveston and satellite Texas A&M campuses in the Galveston area to be fully up and running.

With winds of 160 kilometers per hour and torrential rains, Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast early on Saturday morning, submerging most of Galveston and blowing out glass windows of skyscrapers in Houston. UTMB officials said that although none of the buildings on campus suffered any structural damage, many were inundated with 1 to 1.3 meters of water. Like the rest of Galveston and many other parts of Texas, UTMB and Texas A&M's campuses at Fort Crockett and on Pelican Island were left without power and adequate water supply. UTMB officials said back-up generators were providing electricity for recovery operations and maintenance of key facilities such as mice colonies and freezers in which pathogens are stored.

The storm has put a crimp on UTMB activities. "We are not catering to any patients, and we are not going to be able to hold any classes for a while," spokesperson John Kolen told ScienceNOW. No research equipment appears to have been damaged. However, it could take several days to remove trees felled by the storm, clean up debris, and just take stock of the water damage, Kolen says, and it's unclear when researchers will be able to return to their labs. An update on Texas A&M's Web site on Monday said the two satellite campuses will remain closed for the rest of this week.

In Houston, where roughly 80% of residents remain without electricity, two major research centers--Baylor College of Medicine and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center--escaped relatively unscathed. After tropical storm Allison destroyed Baylor's animal facility back in 2001, the two centers took steps to protect themselves from future storms (Science, 22 June 2001, p. 2226). Both erected floodwalls that are at least 2 meters tall and in some places as high as 3 meters. Baylor placed permanent plastic on the inside of its windows to protect against flying glass, and M.D. Anderson buried its power lines. Neither institute lost power in Saturday's hurricane, and both suffered only minor flooding. They are expected to be fully functional in the next couple days.

UTMB officials began preparing for the hurricane following warnings issued early last week. At the Galveston National Laboratory, which houses a biosafety level 4 lab, researchers shut down experiments, euthanized infected animals, put pathogens in cold storage, and autoclaved cell cultures. "We have not lost any research," says Stanley Lemon, director of UTMB's Institute for Human Infections and Immunity.

UTMB biologist Werner Braun says research groups on campus knew exactly what to do, thanks to drills they practiced when storm warnings were issued during the summer. "We had several days' warning to stop processes such as long-term molecular dynamics simulations and back up all our data," Braun says. He says the "major impact on our work will be the lost workdays, just before several important conferences and grant deadlines." There may be a silver lining, though: "In the long term, it is always good to have a little time to just think about our work."

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