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Microbiologist Brett Baker’s barrier-island lab was directly in the path of Hurricane Harvey.

University of Texas

A lab flees from Harvey: We were ‘just so damn lucky’

On Wednesday morning last week, as the tropical depression that would become Hurricane Harvey took direct aim at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) in Port Aransas on the Gulf Coast, microbiologist Brett Baker had already begun to prep his lab for the worst. On the top floor of a three-story building erected on the low-lying barrier island called Mustang, he and his crew of three graduate students wrapped PCR machines, centrifuges, and other laboratory equipment in clear plastic sheeting and meters of duct tape. They transfered data to offsite servers, lined the windows with old towels, and unplugged all the electronics. Then, they gathered up their personal items, turned off the lights, and shut the door.

“It all seemed not very real,” says Kiley Seitz, a Ph.D. student in the Baker lab.

Baker, who studies the genetics and metabolism of marine bacteria, hoped to see the inside of his lab within the week. Seitz and some of her fellow grad students had planned to ride out the storm in their apartments. But another Ph.D. student, Ian Rambo, had lived through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, at age 14. He had a suitcase ready and already had contacted friends in San Antonio, Texas, for a place to crash. Then, mandatory evacuation orders came down early Friday morning as the storm strengthened into a Category-4 monster, and Baker realized he might never see his lab again.

In the 6 days after Harvey made landfall on 25 August, the storm dropped 25 trillion gallons of water on Texas and Louisiana, according to WeatherBell meteorologist Ryan Maue (in comparison, the Chesapeake Bay contains 18 trillion gallons). Scientists at Houston’s many research facilities, including the Texas Medical Center, the University of Texas Health Science Center, the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Rice University, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, have found their projects interrupted, stalled, and, in some cases, destroyed.

Baker was fortunate in one respect, however. Unlike some biology colleagues at UTMSI, his work didn’t involve large incubators full of growing bacteria—his lab mainly analyzes DNA sequences of marine microbes to study their physiology and metabolism. He told his students to prepare for a long-term displacement and look for other labs where they might like to work. Michael Wilkins, a microbiologist at The Ohio State University in Columbus, donated computer server space so Baker’s team could store data away from the storm.

In addition to safeguarding his lab, Baker also had to rush to deal with his personal life. He crammed as many of his family’s belongings as he could into his navy blue Prius. On Friday morning, after his young son had kissed each of his remaining stuffed animals farewell, they piled into the car and boarded the ferry off Mustang Island. Racing ahead of the first bands of the storm, Baker began the 17-hour drive north to his parents’ home in Wisconsin.

As he made the journey, stopping for the night in Missouri, researchers around the globe began texting and calling to offer up lab space and spare bedrooms for affected scientists. “The response from the scientific community has been overwhelming. We’re all so grateful,” Rambo says.

Back at UTMSI, the situation quickly eroded. Its location in Port Aransas, in the eye of the storm, received the brunt of a 3.5-meter storm surge and the hurricane’s 130-mile-per-hour winds. An instrument-laden pier survived Harvey’s landfall, but a boat cast loose by the storm later struck and destroyed it. Baker’s home was flooded but remains intact, according to neighbors, although many of his colleagues didn’t share that fate. Aerial footage of damage to the university shook Seitz out of her denial that she would be back in Port Aransas within a few days. Baker’s lab building remains standing, although extensive flooding and wind-caused damage of the roof means it will remain unusable for months.

In the interim, his lab has scattered. Postdoc Nina Dombrowski, who was visiting family in Germany when Harvey hit, plans on relocating to the University of Uppsala in Sweden for several months. Seitz seized an opportunity to work with microbiologist Jill Banfield of the University of California, Berkeley, for several months, and Rambo intends to rotate through several labs if he can’t find space in the lab of a Harvard University researcher. University of Texas facilities in Corpus Christi remain somewhat intact and UTMSI classes will begin there, so Baker intends to return to Texas over the weekend to prepare for the semester.

Until the flood waters recede fully, it will be impossible to calculate the amount of damage or how many researchers had data, experiments, or facilities destroyed. But for now, Baker is just counting his blessings.

“This really was the worst-case scenario, and we were still just so damn lucky,” Baker says.