After record-breaking rains and catastrophic flooding, many scientists remain in suspense about how Hurricane Harvey will affect their research. Some are still unable to return to their labs and field sites to assess any damage. But others are beginning to get a look at the storm’s aftermath.
Here is a sampling of what ScienceInsider is hearing from researchers. And we’re eager to hear your story. Let us know how Harvey is affecting your research, for better or worse, by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Home with mom and several dozen rescued birds
On the eve of Harvey making landfall in Texas, Andrew Orgill sorely tested his mother’s love for him. Orgill, an animal attendant at a local wildlife rescue facility, showed up at her house with nine pelicans, a roseate spoonbill, and more than 30 other injured birds that he brought home for safekeeping and released onto her back porch. Orgill, who started working at the Amos Rehabilitation Keep at the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) on the Gulf Coast when he was 10, knew that as long as he fed them their daily rations of frozen fish, cut to each bird’s size needs, they would tolerate the close quarters. Together, the Orgills and the birds weathered the hurricane intact.
The keep also had 60 sea turtles of various sizes under its care, which were evacuated to an emergency wildlife facility built to handle animals caught in an oil spill. Deemed safer in that metal frame building, with its heavy duty steel beams and large garage doors secured with chains, than in the keep’s wood structures, the turtles still could have been flooded by the storm surge. But the thinking was they could swim around until the water receded and thus survive.
Indeed, all the turtles and birds fared well, and the 30 turtles deemed ready to be on their own were released immediately after the storm. The rest were packed into the back of a pickup truck and driven to another wildlife rehab facility, the Texas SeaLife Center in Corpus Christi. They will remain there for at least a month as the keep is repaired. As for the birds, “They now have a lot more room than on the back porch,” says Jace Tunnell, manager of NERR.
Riding out the storm downtown with the animals
As the hurricane roared into Houston, Mary Robinson hunkered down at the University of Texas Health Science Center downtown. Robinson, a veterinarian and director of the animal facilities there, headed up the storm “ride-out” crew caring for the laboratory animals until regular staff could return to work.
The addition of submarine doors and flood gates after Tropical Storm Allison (see below), as well as moving the animal facilities out of the basement, helped make Robinson’s 5-day stint relatively quiet.
“Not a single animal was hurt or killed or even seemed to be bothered by the storm,” she says.
'Substantial' damage at University of Texas marine institute
Marine researchers are facing “substantial” water damage to one of two major laboratory buildings at the University of Texas (UT) Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, according to Communications Coordinator Sally Palmer. And five instrument stations in a nearby estuary that transmitted real-time weather and environmental data blinked offline this past Saturday night as Hurricane Harvey roared ashore.
“We’re hoping that at least some of the instruments are still there somewhere, but haven’t been able to check yet,” Palmer tells ScienceInsider.
The good news is that none of the institute’s 200 staff members were hurt as the storm made landfall just a few dozen kilometers to the east of the coastal station, which focuses on conducting ecological, fisheries, and biogeochemistry research. But many employees have yet to be able to return to their homes in nearby communities, and the station’s “operations are suspended until further notice,” Palmer says.
Preliminary surveys suggest a laboratory primarily used for fisheries research and aquaculture experienced some flooding but avoided major damage, Palmer says. Emergency electrical generators kicked on during the height of the storm, and researchers hope that kept pumps and bubblers going in tanks full of larval fish and other aquatic creatures.
A second building full of laboratory space wasn’t so lucky. The hurricane appears to have torn its roof and damaged facilities inside, Palmer says. Response teams are now assessing the damage, making sure laboratory chemicals are safely contained, and setting up security at the site.
Reports suggest a third institute facility in nearby Rockport, Texas, might have sustained worse damage, Palmer says. The building, used primarily for public outreach and education, sits just 20 meters from the shore near the center of the city, which was hard hit by the storm.
The institute’s fleet of small boats, which were moved to a warehouse before the storm, are apparently safe. And a former shrimp trawler used for education programs rode out the tempest in a sheltered harbor. Still, Palmer says it could be weeks before the institute can resume regular operations.
In the meantime, Palmer says that—like many other institute employees—she is dealing with some storm damage on the homefront. Winds knocked down the backyard fence at her residence in suburb of Corpus Christi, and it will need to be replaced.
In a 27 August statement, Gregory Fenves, the president of of UT, which is based in Austin, noted that "John Sharp, the chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, has offered [marine institute staff] the temporary use of facilities at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, for which I am deeply grateful."
At medical center in Houston, optimism about flood defenses
So far, researchers appear optimistic that flood defenses will hold at the Texas Medical Center, the behemoth complex of hospitals and medical research labs in Houston that includes Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the Texas A&M Health Sciences Center.
Raghu Kalluri, a cancer biologist at MD Anderson, managed to return to his lab this morning to find everything in working order: Freezers full of important samples had been protected by backup generators, and facilities housing research animals had stayed dry. Kalluri, who 5 years ago saw colleagues’ research devastated by damage from Hurricane Sandy while at Harvard Medical School in Boston, was pleasantly surprised by the center’s response. “I’m quite impressed of how they’ve prepared themselves,” he says.
Several researchers say the center is benefiting from hard lessons learned from Tropical Storm Allison, which in 2001 breached aging dykes at Texas Medical Center and flooded hospital basements, killing thousands of research rodents and thawing frozen tissue samples. The complex now has a system of flood doors that sealed off basements and first floor facilities as water levels rose over the weekend. A spokesperson for Baylor described a system of gates and concrete walls rising 15 meters above sea level.
“Disruption of research should be modest unless the situation worsens,” predicts cancer researcher Kent Osborne of Baylor. But he and others have been unable to visit their labs, as water continues to block roads to the medical center.
“Maybe the flood control efforts after Allison are working,” says infectious disease researcher Herbert Dupont of the University of Texas Health Science Center, “but we need the storm to move along!”