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On Hard-Hit Galveston, Researchers Regroup

26 September 2008 (All day)
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UTMB

After the storm. Campus was quiet (inset), with trash building up at the University of Texas Medical Branch campus in Galveston as recovery crews clean out classrooms and lab buildings.

Virologist Scott Weaver set off to survey the damage at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) labs in Galveston just 1 day after the last squalls from Hurricane Ike passed over the island on 13 September. Although Galveston was hammered, the scene that greeted him at the UTMB labs was not as bad as he had feared, he says. With residents now pouring back in, Weaver and other Galveston researchers report that cleanup efforts at their labs and homes are proceeding more rapidly than they had expected.

"The mood is very, very up," says UTMB Associate Dean of Research David Gorenstein. As of Thursday, cleanup crews had dried out about two-thirds of the campus, and emergency generators were cranking out electricity, he says.

The UTMB campus stands on the eastern portion of the island, behind the seawall the city constructed after a hurricane devastated the town in 1900. The wall held during Ike, sparing the campus much of the destruction experienced across the rest of Galveston, where whole neighborhoods washed away. Overall, Hurricane Ike killed 50 people in the Gulf Coast and left millions more without power for a week. But the Galveston National Laboratory, a $167 million facility designed for the study of biohazards, suffered minimal damage, says the lab's associate director, James LeDuc. UTMB's biosafety level 4 lab, which holds samples of microbes such as anthrax and plague bacteria, also emerged unscathed. Elsewhere on the island, Texas A&M University's Galveston research facilities suffered virtually no damage, says campus CEO R. Bowen Loftin.

But back at UTMB, Keiller Building, the school's oldest research facility for virology and microbiology, did not fare as well. The building sits only about 2.5 meters above sea level and experienced more than 1 meter of flooding in its basement, Weaver says. Dehumidifiers hummed throughout Keiller and other UTMB buildings this past week, as work crews raced to rip out soggy flooring and dry wall, Gorenstein says: "Down in Galveston, we know all about mold."

Meanwhile, Weaver and his assistants made rounds to ensure that freezers stayed on and that animal colonies evacuated from the basement labs survived in their temporary facilities as the campus ran on backup generators. Of particular concern was a colony of Mexican mosquitoes that had taken 2 years to amass. "We're giving them a lot of TLC to keep them going," Weaver says, explaining that he feeds the larvae multiple times a day and ensures that the adults' supply of sugar water doesn't run low.

Weaver estimates that replacing some of the lab equipment that got soaked, plus repair efforts to Keiller's basement, could cost more than $1 million and mean weeks of lost time for the researchers. But LeDuc noted that research facility repair costs would amount to just a fraction of UTMB's overall losses from Ike. The school estimates it could lose some $600 million, much of that in lost revenue from closing hospital clinics for repairs, he says.

UTMB and Texas A&M researchers know that, for them, the greatest cost of Hurricane Ike will be time lost away from the lab bench rather than repair expenses. Weaver says they hope to have most of the labs across campus fully cleaned and operational within a month: "[Research] is very competitive. We can't afford to lose much time."