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Stemming the Tide: Sacked by Hurricane Ike, UTMB Starts to Rebuild Its Life-Sci Footing

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One month after Hurricane Ike wreaked havoc on eastern Texas, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston has begun to recover.
 
UTMB, which combines a research campus with facilities that include several hospitals, schools of medicine and nursing, graduate-level biomedical sciences, and allied health sciences, still cannot reopen the flooded first floors, which remain shuttered until further notice.
 
But UTMB at Galveston — the largest employer on Galveston Island and the seventh-largest in the eastern Texas region that includes Galveston and Houston, and the state’s oldest academic health sciences center — has reopened much of several buildings after nearly buckling under Hurricane Ike exactly one month ago. 
 
The storm made landfall in Texas at 2:10 a.m. local time on Sept. 13, bringing with it a wall of water over 13 feet high and sustained winds nearing 110 mph.
 
Damage to all of UTMB has been estimated at $709 million; a specific figure for just the research campus was unavailable.
 
Last week, state lawmakers responded to the university’s plans to lay off one-third of its 12,000-person workforce by promising to develop a rescue plan within two weeks.
 
State Sen. Steven Ogden (R-Bryan), chairman of the Texas state Senate Finance Committee, told the Houston Chronicle that the lawmakers would look to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide what he termed a “substantial” amount, but acknowledged it was at least as likely that the legislature would have to spend money first, then seek reimbursement from FEMA.
 
According to its web site, UTMB’s Galveston and Austin sites enroll a combined 2,422 students studying medicine, nursing, allied health sciences, and graduate biomedical sciences. Around 2,170 of them are Texans. 
 
With 900 faculty members statewide and 697 residents and fellows in Galveston and Austin, UTMB operates on a $1.5 billion budget and says it generates $1.1 billion in statewide economic impact.
 
UTMB’s web site includes a chart summarizing the status of each of the roughly two dozen buildings that comprise UTMB’s research campus. This week UTMB’s recovery effort took its next step forward by reopening — albeit for office occupancy only — the Graves, McCullough, Medical Research, and Pharmacology buildings.
 
At those and all other UTMB buildings, only the second and higher floors are being brought back into service.
 
The university has given a firm go-ahead for resuming next week laboratory operations at the second and higher floors of five buildings reopened earlier this month for office use — Brackenridge, Clay Hall, Mary Moody Northern Pavilion, Research Building 17, and the School of Nursing/Allied Health.
 
UTMB has also given tentative approval for lab work to resume next week at the second and higher floors of five buildings partially reopened last week for office use — Pediatrics & Children’s Hospital, Dockside Building, Ewing Hall, Old Shrine, and Jennie Sealy Hospital.
 
BioRegion News last week spoke with William New, associate dean for research administration, about how UTMB’s research campus weathered the hurricane and its aftereffects.
 

 
Can you please describe the damage caused to UTMB’s research campus?
 
We flooded, so almost all the first floors of all the buildings flooded. And that flooding is probably anywhere from 1 to 4 or 5 feet, depending what side of the campus, what side the elevation was. It was a serious flooding event for us. Almost all of the elevators stopped working. And that’s because the water filled – that’s what happens anytime you have stress to a system like that.
 
Clearly if there was a facility that was first floor based, and it flooded, it’s pretty obvious the damage there. What we’re not certain about is: With the high humidity, though we were blessed with reasonably mild and low-humidity outdoor weather for September, what the impact is on the electronics and on the sensors. And the research buildings that are full of scientific equipment given the humidity — not only just humidity, but it’s salt water humidity, and we don’t know what the impact is going to be. We’re cautiously saying that we know that certain equipment just doesn’t work.
 
But it’s going to take us, we think, four to six months, before we really understand what the impact is going to be on some of the equipment. We’re all concerned about that – the electronic boards, and whatever doesn’t do well in wet environments, plus a lot of the sensors are potentially humidity sensitive.
 
How did UTMB prepare for the hurricane?
 
Our disaster planning really focuses on protecting three repositories – our data repositories, our freezer repositories with our data specimens, and our animals. We figure you can’t really move animals, so it’s better to send people out and just move to protect your animals.
 
It wasn’t perfect, but all in all we lost very few freezers, and we lost very few animals, and the data — I’ve heard no reports on any problems with the data repository. From one perspective, a very successful plan was in place, very successfully oriented. Our plans were oriented more toward a three- to five-day downtime, with people coming back.
 
You cited the repositories. Could you discuss what steps you and UTMB took to protect the repositories, and what were the results?
 
[For] the data repository, we have a site in Arlington[, Tex.] where a lot of the file servers are backed up to. Plus a lot of the laboratories will have a lot of local file servers. And there’s been a policy we’ve been pushing from the system in supporting – I think most people have contemplated what is really serious data that needs to be protected, and have a strategy, either on backup tape someplace, or our IS [information systems] department has both file servers in a data center that mirrors what we have down here. It’s set up in Arlington, Texas, and then they have an ability of storing tapes and other kinds of things, backup media. We’ve heard no complaints about lost data.
 
Freezers are — years and years of research can be tied to specimens in freezers. Our animals, for the most part, the transgenics and the knockouts are the ones we’re most concerned about, because the others are often commercially available. But we had some long-term aging studies and other things that we didn’t want people to have to wait another 15 – 18 months before their mice are ready to use again.
 
We really went — and our normal animal staff is 35 people and husbandry people, and we have seven people working in the dark, walking through mud up to their shins, and ground floor buildings that were unventilated, changing cages with flashlights and that kind of stuff. We had seven people for about six days before people could get back on the island and started showing up. We had a reduced colony because we had shipped all our large animals out. [Galveston National Laboratory] had sacked all their animals and gotten as much data as they could out of them.
 
The containment laboratories have a very strict protocol on that. The new one, we have both the Shoke lab — that did not lose containment. They didn’t have anything active there. But to decommission or to bring the whole thing down is a major undertaking. They just put everything in freezers and had nothing. There’s a standard protocol for that. And GNL — actually what helped us a bit at GNL was that we had 20 new freezers coming in, and as freezers started failing, we started plugging in the new freezers, and transferring materials over there, just to keep them as backup, almost like a freezer farm. Again, the GNL had not been commissioned, had not opened officially, had been released to the university in August. There were no experiments going on. They were still installing new equipment, and doing that kind of stuff. Of all the buildings on campus, this was probably the one that was ready to go on the Sunday after the storm.
 
How long did you stay on campus during the storm and afterward?
 
I stayed through the storm, and I worked really pretty intensely two weeks, and then my own house flooded here in Galveston, so I’ve been dealing over the last week kind of in and out, trying to handle that.
 
Having said that, I was focusing on trying to keep the animals alive, bringing the electricity back to the buildings, bringing chilling back to the buildings, trying to get the freezers stocked with dry ice until the generators could be restored. A number of the generators had one problem or another. It’s not unusual for having to run for two weeks, two and a half weeks before power could be restored to the island.
 
I was fairly well isolated from what everybody’s been saying about Galveston. I wasn’t outside reading the [news] reports or watching TV, or doing any of that. I was in the struggle. What I’ve heard people say is that this is as bad as the 1900 storm. So we’re still dealing with a storm that’s pretty unusual for its frequency for Galveston Island.
 
What sort of restoration work is being carried out now?
 
Our plans for four or five days being out and coming back after the storm clears were challenged when we had a three-week process to restore power. Having said that, I think we’ve done quite well. People are very anxious to get to work up in the labs, and start getting the data generated for their grants and publications. But we’re also checking out fire alarms, making sure they’re working. Elevators have to be tested to make sure that they’re safe for people to go. The fire sprinkler systems and all that have to be working. [University Environmental Health &] Safety [staffers] came through very early on and cleared things. And they’ve also been working very closely with our laboratory staff that was coming in, the post-storm staff.
 
There were also two big contractors on site – one was, you clean up to make sure that the flood water that goes into the first floor with our environmental health and safety people, they say it’s not polluted, that it’s safe. The second group would come in and clean out the floors, and box up the stuff that needed to be boxed up, and ship it to the furniture. We had very few laboratories, very few on the first floor level. Mostly what has been affected are offices and things like that. We did have probably about 3,000 or 4,000 square feet of laboratory space that was flooded. Given the amount of space we have, that’s very good — not a lot.
 
The animals were all on the second floor, 22- to 24-feet high, so they didn’t really have any problems. We had problems with the rack washers and glass washers, because they were all basically ground level, and they flooded, so we’re having to order parts and getting them back up to speed and that kind of stuff. Our Houston area institution [UT Houston’s Health Sciences Center] has been very helpful in helping us process our cage washing — we send our caging up there and it gets washed, and it comes back a couple of days later. And we’re using a lot of disposable caging.
 
We’ve had people coming in and packing freezers with dry ice, until the generators could all be restored. There were two or three days where in several of the big buildings, the generators had some hydraulic systems that had kind of broken, so they had to re-pump that.
 
And then once we got the electricity restored, then our worry was the heat that all these freezers were generating. So getting chilled water and getting the chilling plant back online was critical. All those fell into place about this time the beginning of [the week of Sept. 29]. We had cooling going to all of the animal rooms, and cooling going to all of the freezer areas. We’re pretty much over the hump. But it was a challenge.
 
How many people stayed on campus watching and riding out the hurricane? Earlier you mentioned among them yourself and some of the seven people watching the animal facilities.
 
Well, our standard procedure has been up to now for — there’s not a lot that the research community can do when the storm actually hits. Our recommendation had been that very few people ride out the storm. So it was a very skeletal staff that rode out the storm on the research side.
 
On the clinical side, it’s more robust, because the planning there is, we need to be ready to open the day after the storm to deal with injuries and with the community. So there were hundreds of people in the university; there were probably less than 20 here dealing specifically with the research. We’ll have to evaluate that, because it was an unusual storm – it had a huge category 4 storm surge.
 
What changes to UTMB’s disaster planning effort can be expected as a result of Hurricane Ike?
 
Given the difficulty of getting people back on the island through the security, we may change our practice. We have a lot of discussion to do about that. One of the things we’re going to have to discuss and evaluate is, how many people do we want on the island, or in the hospital, and in the university facilities that are specific to research? It’s mainly the early days after the storm: Do we have enough manpower to deal effectively with that? I probably would have for sure have a few more animal technicians, animal husbandry people on. Maybe not many more — just two to four — but it would have been helpful. Those guys did heroic jobs, and worked to the point of fatigue every day, and just kept at it. A lot of it was because of their own personal standard and pride and work to do, and just a lot of care and concern for the animals. They didn’t want to sack animals. We had very few that we had to sack.
 
What was the biggest challenge in reopening the research campus?
 
I think the biggest challenge to us was that this was a two- to three-week return process. People started returning to work [Oct. 6], for the most part. Most of our thinking has been around four to five days, or three days. I slept in my office for eight to 10 days. When I came to the hospital, I brought underwear and clothes for three to four days. I expected to be home Monday or Tuesday [Sept. 15 or 16]. I was up to my butt in alligators that Tuesday. It was just a heck of a storm.
 
It was a nasty environment because its flood salt water, and who knows what’s in there. The first floors were all tumbled, because the water just washed through. Desks and offices — everything was just a mess. It wiped out our cafeteria in the hospital, on the first floor, things like that. It was a nasty environment.
 
It took us time to get all the generators back up and running. Many of them operated, but then many of them for one reason or another had problems. We actually had portable backup chillers for the animal facilities. We were able to bring those in, plug them in, and even though the chill plant, which provides the chilling for most of the buildings, was out and most of the buildings were hot, the animal buildings were chilling pretty quickly. That was, again, part of our plan for recovery, or surviving this kind of an event. So it worked very well; it helped to keep the animals alive.
 
Given what has happened, where have the researchers been carrying out their research? Have they moved to other cities?
 
I don’t think there has been a lot of that, though I think some people have gone to collaborators, and just sent their post-docs or their graduate students, or maybe they themselves have borrowed the bench and found some work. But most of them are planning to come back here, and that’s why we’re pushing [to clean up damage and reopen the campus].
 
Very early on in the storm, I’m not sure if it was the end of the day Sunday or Monday after the storm hit — it hit Friday night — at one point, the institution said it would not be dealing with patients, and they had hundreds of people here that were sent home, that were oriented toward taking care of patients. They shut that down and brought in a DMAT, a disaster medical assistance team, to set up an ER in our ER near the helipad. Basically, clinical care was handled by an outside group. And then, we threw our resources — our phone, engineering resources — toward preserving as best we could the critical repositories in the research buildings.
 
I think one of the reasons we lost so few animals, and the reason that we lost so few freezers, was that we had just a lot of support focusing on getting power back, getting cooling back, to the research buildings. I think had we been competing with clinical operations on the hospital side, I don’t know how it would have been. This time, it worked fine.
 
The animals that perished, they were primarily or entirely mice?
 
Overwhelmingly.
 
Any figure on how many mice?
 
The seat of the pants figure we’ve been using is about 30,000 rodents. We had very, very few large animals on campus. We sent most of them out after the storm. The rabbits, we sent out, because they are very heat intolerant. We didn’t have enough water pressure — we didn’t have water — to clean the pigs, so we shipped them out to better accommodations.

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