HOUSTON--Years of scientific work were almost certainly destroyed and perhaps tens of thousands of lab animals drowned when a second burst from Tropical Storm Allison hit here this weekend. The deluge flooded all eight hospitals and two medical schools at the Texas Medical Center. Although details remain sketchy, it appears that the damage was exacerbated by the failure of submerged emergency generators.
The Texas Medical Center is the largest collection of medical research facilities in the world, including the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, the Texas A&M Health Sciences Center, and Baylor College of Medicine. It is also at the edge of one of the largest bayous in Houston, the Braes Bayou, which overran its banks late Saturday night, when Allison unexpectedly returned from the Gulf of Mexico to drop another 80 centimeters of rain on the Houston area. The flood waters apparently breached a 20-year-old series of protective dikes and poured into hospital basements.
The flooding took a heavy toll at the Baylor and University of Texas vivariums, where lab animals were housed below ground. No one knows exactly how many survived. "We got everything from the cows down to the rabbits out in time," says Claire Bassett, Baylor's vice president for public affairs. But up to 30,000 mice and rats may have drowned, she says.
The basements were also home to many generations of frozen tissue samples that may have thawed when power was cut and back-up generators submerged. Damage estimates will have to wait until the water has been pumped out, but most expect the cost to be high in both money and time. "Some researchers have lost years of work," says Larry McIntoire, chair of the biomedical engineering department at Rice University in Houston.
Power and phone service has been restored to some of the buildings, but computer connections at most institutions were not working today. All research is on hold as faculty members join forces with relief workers to dig out--and dry out--after the disaster. "The way the faculty has pulled together is amazing," says geneticist Huda Zoghbi of Baylor. "I have only seen this before during a state of war."