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ABRF Speakers Outline Disaster Prep for Core Facilities

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (GenomeWeb) – The best way core labs and others can prepare for a disaster like a hurricane is to have a detailed plan in the drawer, according to speakers at the Association for Biomolecular Resource Facilities annual meeting here.

Recent years have seen a number of strong storms and hurricanes in various parts of the US that have caused billions of dollars in damages. During the last hurricane season, Hurricane Irma caused $50 billion in damages in the US, mostly in Florida, while Hurricane Harvey wreaked $125 billion in damages, largely in Texas, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office for Coastal Management.

Research institutions and their core labs like those at Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute were among those hit hard by those storms. But, speakers at the ABRF meeting said, drawing up a disaster plan could help guide the response to and recovery from a storm, or other disaster events.

"There's a continuum of preparing, responding, and recovering," said Amy Wilkerson, the associate vice president for research support at Rockefeller University, adding that researchers and their institutions need the "ability to absorb the event, recover, and learn from it."

Core labs are key to research resilience, Wilkerson said during her talk. Getting them back up and running after a disaster can help get research at the institution return to normalcy.

To do that, cores, along with their departments and institutions, need to develop emergency and disaster plans, she said. She differentiated the two mainly by their duration — emergencies are generally short-lived, while disasters last longer.

For either, she said, the key steps deal with identifying and mitigating risks, being prepared, responding, and recovering. Wilkerson suggested that labs begin with a Hazard Vulnerability Assessment, a standard process, to gauge their risk of different events. One tool she recommended is freely available from Kaiser Permanente, and asks users to rate the likelihood from low to high that they might be affected by a dam failure, IT system outage, or mudslide, among other scenarios, rate the effect those situations would have on people, property, and business, and then rate the steps they've taken to minimize that risk.

She also recommended that institutions adopt an all-hazard plan, rather than rely on different plans for different situations. She noted that these considerations should be a part of institution-wide plans and clearly identify a disaster command structure.

Previous hurricanes that affected Florida had helped identify the Moffitt Cancer Center's vulnerabilities, said Christine O'Connell, the senior director of laboratory research operations there.

For instance, the vivarium is located in the basement, which is at risk of flooding. But evacuating the animals to higher floors meant taking them out through the loading dock and then back into the building because doorways weren't wide enough for the equipment. To avoid that, the center widened doorways so that the animals could be moved without going outside, while also altering drainage to lessen the risk of flooding.

O'Connell added that they also outfitted some equipment with remote monitoring devices. With those, people could log on remotely to see, for example, whether freezers in the tissue core were getting too warm.

Another part of being ready for a storm is to conduct drills, so people know what they are supposed to be doing. This could be a table read with key people to talk through what should be done, Wilkerson said, but it could also include testing generators regularly, O'Connell noted.

The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas implemented the first phase of its plan when Harvey transformed to a tropical storm and the second when it became a hurricane, said Ryan Hladyniuk, the institute's core facilities manager and safety coordinator.

As previous storms had included surges of four to seven feet of water, their plan included moving equipment from the bottom floors to the second and third floors. At the Moffitt, O'Connell similarly said they moved equipment as Irma bore down on them.

After a storm, Hladyniuk warned, there might be little infrastructure — no power, for example — as well as physical hazards like broken glass and safety hazards like chemical spills.

O'Connell noted that research areas, but not clinical facilities, lost normal power during Hurricane Irma when a nearby transformer was lost. While her institution had emergency generators, she said they quickly became concerned about their fuel and load capacities. Fortunately, the University of South Florida was able to help and top them up, she added.

Recovery can also be slow going. Hladyniuk said, for example, that a lot of equipment might be non-functional. His equipment was exposed to ambient air with temperatures in the 90s and high humidity for days, so a number of machines were corroded. He also recommended taking lots of pictures and collecting data on machines for insurers. He also noted that maintaining an accurate inventory ahead of time, as well as maintenance logs, are helpful for insurance claims.

Hladyniuk added that Texas A&M Corpus Christi, which was unaffected, stepped in and provided office and lab space for faculty, staff, and students. Similarly, a student who needed an uncommon machine was helped out by Agilent, its manufacturer, and Emory University, which had its own, to finish collecting data. "I couldn't be more grateful," he said.

But, he said, it's not just the equipment, as people need to be taken care of and supported, as well.

As Hladyniuk and O'Connell rebuild their facilities, they've taken home lessons to be better prepared for the next storm. O'Connell, for instance, said she's increasing the capacity of the emergency power, while Hladyniuk is fixing a leaky roof.

"You are learning from every single event," O'Connell said.

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