Katrina's Wrath Spares Some Scientific Institutions

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath continue to be felt in many parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, and for New Orleans, the news is only getting worse. Several scientific institutions lay in the path of the massive storm, and it may be months before the full extent of the damage to buildings and research programs is known.

The blow to New Orleans-based universities, including Tulane, the University of New Orleans, and Xavier, could be especially devastating. Last night Tulane president Scott Cowen reported on an emergency Web site that, like the rest of the city, the university is without power and facilities have sustained some damages, though Cowen stated he believed remediation could be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. However, the potential cost of the storm to Tulane's research facilities, including its Center for Infectious Diseases and its Herbarium containing thousands of native plants and rare reference works, could be much higher.

Farther from the floodwaters, the picture is less bleak. The deluge from Lake Pontchartrain never reached Tulane's National Primate Research Center (TNPRC), situated on higher ground and on the opposite side of the lake from the main campus. Still, Katrina's 225 kilometer-per-hour winds caused extensive damage to the facilities, says Tom Gordon, associate director for Scientific Programs at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Gordon was contacted by one of a skeleton crew of TNPRC employees who stayed behind to care for the animals. "In the last days, [the Center] took some extraordinary precautionary measures to do what they could," Gordon says. "They moved animals from the most vulnerable facilities, laid in provisions and fuel for emergency generators--and the animals are safe and could be fine for the next couple of weeks."

There was other good news. Several major research facilities in the area, including the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) at Livingston, Louisiana, NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and Lockheed Martin's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, which builds the external fuel tanks for the Space Shuttle, also weathered the storm with no injuries and only minor wind and roof damage, says June Malone, a spokesperson for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Though both Stennis and Michoud report no major damages to space flight hardware, both facilities are without power and have only limited communication. And, due to flooding, there is limited access to Michoud except by helicopter. Still, it is too early to tell whether the storm will significantly affect the shuttle program, NASA officials say.

For updates on Katrina's impact on science and personal stories from researchers, stay tuned to ScienceNOW.

Related sites
Tulane's emergency Web site
New Orleans-based TV station broadcasting online
More information on Stennis and Michoud