Katrina’s Fallout

Storm-struck researchers forge on—many, far from home

Hand over hand, the scuba diving researchers felt their way down the offshore oil rig, blinded by water black with ocean detritus and marsh debris. They tried not to think about the 7-foot alligator patrolling the rig at the water’s surface, 15 miles from its swampy home. The scientists soon reached a place on the rig’s leg where 18 months earlier they had attached instruments that relayed information on undersea conditions. Loose cables provided the only sign of their $200,000 package, which had fallen silent almost 3 weeks earlier, on the night that Hurricane Katrina passed over this patch of the Gulf of Mexico.

BEFORE AND AFTER. The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf laboratory aquarium building, pictured before and after Hurricane Katrina blew through. USM’s coastal campuses sustained $500 million in Katrina losses. USM
CATCH AND RELEASE. Biology student Micah Bakenhaster holds a Gulf sturgeon in this picture taken 2 years ago. Hurricane Katrina washed away archive samples of such fish and their parasites. This was a severe blow to research because the species is threatened with extinction, so no more samples may be collected. Bullard/USM

Continuing down to the seafloor, 65 feet below the ocean surface, the divers began probing the muck with their hands. “We found bits and pieces of the instruments and the custom brackets that had held them on to the platform,” says Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Chauvin.

It will take months to fashion a replacement package of oxygen meters and other instruments, she says. Her team relies on such equipment to map the Gulf’s annual dead zone, a region where the water’s oxygen seasonally drops too low for fish to survive (SN: 6/5/04, p. 360: Dead Waters).

Despite the loss of some expensive equipment and a research center’s roof, most of the consortium’s facilities and oceanographic vessels weathered the storm. Its scientists were back to work within days.

Some institutions located directly on the Gulf were ravaged by winds and storm surges. Although walls were ripped from some buildings, freezers of irreplaceable biological samples washed away, and computers deposited into trees, scientists soon returned to clean up and resume their work.

In contrast, facilities in New Orleans, which is some 60 miles from the Gulf’s open waters, sustained far less damage from the hurricane itself. Substantial research losses there trace instead to the subsequent flooding, the extended absence of electrical power, and the long-term evacuation of area residents, says Paul Whelton, senior vice president of the Tulane University Health Sciences Center.

Most New Orleans–area universities wrote off their fall semesters. Colleges across the nation rallied to aid displaced undergraduates, offering them temporary—and, in some cases, free—admission. A consortium of Texas medical schools opened its campuses so that Tulane Medical School could reconstitute itself in Houston (SN: 10/8/05, p. 238: Available to subscribers at Tulane’s traveling med school).

Researchers and their staffs were harder to place. Still, universities, research associations, and federal agencies sent out word of labs willing to share space, access to specialty equipment, and even financial aid. Phone interviews with scientists from Katrina-ravaged zones, some of whom are now working at safe havens around the nation, reveal the myriad ways in which they are coping with the devastation.

Many of these researchers actually find reason for optimism as they’ve begun or are looking forward to picking up their research where it left off.

“I don’t think any of us truly realize what we’ve lost, how much it’s set us back, and how big a task it’s going to be to recover,” admits Matthew E. Burow of Tulane’s Health Sciences Center. “And that’s good because it keeps us hopeful that we will recover.”

Fierce but quick

Ash Bullard, who had weathered hurricanes before, was visiting his parents in Tennessee on August 29 when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Ocean Springs. Within a few days, the doctoral student and his storm-scattered colleagues returned to survey the damage. A 25-foot storm surge that swept over USM’s four coastal campuses wreaked devastation.

“There’s not a house left standing in my neighborhood,” Bullard reports. All that remains of his two-bedroom house and belongings is a concrete slab.

More troubling to Bullard was the loss of biological samples at the Ocean Springs lab, which he says will impose new limits on his research. He had been cataloging parasites, and much of the work relied on probing frozen tissues from Gulf fish that had been collected each month for the past 30 years.

Bullard had identified one novel parasite, a blood fluke. “As part of my work, I was going to describe and name it,” he says. “A lot of parasites are picky about what they infect,” he notes, and this fluke inhabits only the Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi). However, sturgeon specimens hosting the parasite were among the thousands of frozen samples that his lab lost in the hurricane.

“That was a big hit because we can’t collect this fish anymore,” Bullard explains. The Gulf sturgeon is threatened with extinction, so landing it today, even for research, is illegal.

Although some damage is irreparable, the coastal research centers are picking up the pieces. USM consolidated staff from its devastated coastal campuses onto others that still had buildings standing. By early October, its research and classes had resumed.

Feeling powerless

New Orleans, with its research centers nestled in flood-savaged areas, is another story. After a mandated evacuation, scientists generally were prohibited from returning to labs before this month. The biggest problems were the widespread power outages and mold that overran damp buildings baking in the Gulf area’s heat.

Tulane, with a staff of more than 8,600, is one of the largest private employers in New Orleans. “We’re also the only major university where our whole headquarters was devastated,” says Whelton.

He notes that heroics on the part of technicians and program leaders minimized losses. Many scientists refused to leave in the early days after the hurricane so that they could continue to feed animals or cultured cells. Other researchers stayed until the final evacuation call, transferring blood and tissues “into the freezers still powered by the last juice of emergency [electric] generators” and moving test tubes filled with cells into supercold liquid-nitrogen freezers that don’t depend on electricity, says Whelton.

Some human-cell lines, such as those studied for bone marrow transplants, were emergency airlifted out by helicopter the week after the evacuation. A few freezers full of other tissues were hauled out on military vehicles.

Teams of veterinarians returned a week after the storm to rescue or euthanize small animals. “I’m sure we lost some [rodents],” Whelton says, “but we managed to salvage the vast majority of our important transgenic lines of mice.”

Still, “epidemiologists, like me, lost a lot,” he says. Researchers had collected and frozen blood and other tissue samples from huge cohorts of people and were following those individuals to see what features might differentiate people who developed particular diseases from those who didn’t.

Some collections were 30 to 40 years old, Whelton says, “and unfortunately, a large share is now gone.”

In another example of a setback, Melissa Burmeister of the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans had been using a genetically manipulated strain of mice to study the effects of an opiatelike brain chemical on heart and kidney functions. To acquire the last data of her Ph.D. research, she had implanted eight of the mice with sophisticated radiotelemetry devices, each costing $3,000. The mice have now been euthanized, she says, and the probes discarded.

“I’m [set] back several months in terms of my research. But it’s certainly nothing I can’t rebound from,” Burmeister says.

Burow was growing some 30 novel cell lines—each expressing a unique combination of genes—for use in cancer studies. They’re gone now.

“It’s not just that our work has been set back 6 months to a year, but you’ve suddenly lost all of your tools,” he says. Those tools included tumor samples collected over 3 years and cells stored in a –70°C freezer for 5 to 10 years.

Out of Orleans

Thousands of researchers from New Orleans were dislodged by Hurricane Katrina. They soon began networking with colleagues and accepting offers of safe havens where they could resume work. “We’ve become professional gypsies,” Whelton says.

Burow took advantage of an offer by Baylor College of Medicine colleagues to set up six graduate students in the school’s Houston labs. He regularly drives 5 hours to review their investigations, then returns to suburban New Orleans.

Burmeister had hoped to do postdoctoral research with Robin Davisson of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who also conducts radiotelemetry studies in mice. When Katrina hit, the doctoral student contacted Davisson and was welcomed immediately, so she could restart her aborted work. The only hitch, says Burmeister, is that “I may have to switch to another type of [mouse].”

She doesn’t plan on returning to New Orleans, except to defend her dissertation. One regret: “I disappeared without saying good-bye to everyone I worked with.”

Many universities, such as Iowa, have picked up a researcher or two. Syracuse (N.Y.) University is among those sheltering considerably more: three scientists each from Tulane, Xavier, and their crosstown cousin Dillard University.

Federal havens

Federal agencies have also been finding temporary labs for researchers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans had a staff of 224 until it was flooded with 56 inches of water after Katrina, notes John Patrick Jordan, the center’s director. Almost immediately, he says, a decision was made to reassign nearly all the workers to other federal labs “for a good 6 months.”

The one major exception was researchers working on Formosan termites (SN: 11/29/03, p. 344: Munching Along). Their main field site—New Orleans’ French Quarter—didn’t get much water, Jordan explains, “so, our work there is still going full bore.”

Department of Energy labs around the country have been making room for New Orleans’ vagabond scientists to continue their research. Shubhangi Kale Ireland, a microbiologist and geneticist from Xavier University, exemplifies how serendipitous some of these arrangements have been.

Several days after the storm, from her in-laws’ home in Florida, Ireland phoned the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Earlier, her university had nominated her for an award from that agency. She now asked whether she could get a fax of her résumé so that she could apply for temporary work in Florida. The man she spoke with called back in an hour and told her that Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory was willing to give her work until Xavier reopened.

Says Ireland, “I almost fell out of my chair because it was a dream offer to work at such a prestigious institution.” She’s now setting up colonies of bacteria for genetic studies aimed at maximizing ethanol-fuel production from cellulose (SN: 10/1/05, p. 218: Growing Expectations). She hopes to continue the research collaboration after she returns to Xavier.

The Rosenzweig family took a similarly roundabout route from the University of New Orleans to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. Two years ago, Zeev Rosenzweig, a materials chemist, had declined a job at the National Science Foundation. After evacuating Katrina’s floodwaters, he called his contact there and inquired whether any other job might be open. In fact, the one he had initially been offered was again open and his for the taking.

He then contacted a colleague at NIST to see whether there might be space for his three students and a postdoctoral teammate, who were, with Rosenzweig, developing nanocomposite materials as sensors and drug-delivery systems. Laurie Locascio at NIST found lab space and equipment not only for them, but also for Rosenzweig’s wife, Nitsa, and a postdoc she works with. The two scientists are developing antibody systems to target drugs to breast cancer.

The project is something far removed from NIST’s conventional programs. However, Nitsa Rosenzweig decided to adapt her research to use technologies unique to NIST. “Instead of just being refugees taking shelter in a kind lab,” she says, “I’d like us to nourish each other—with us picking up new techniques while contributing to [NIST’s] research.”

National initiatives

Since the first few days after Katrina struck, federal agencies have been adapting their rules and policies to help storm-struck researchers. For instance, many organizations developed new procedures so that the researchers could temporarily bring federal-grant money to another accredited lab.

To encourage consistency throughout the government, the Office of Management and Budget teamed up with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to coordinate the changes.

Realizing that many biomedical researchers face severe roadblocks to reestablishing their work, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Md., has put in place a new, yearlong sabbatical program for Katrina evacuees at its Frederick, Md., research facility. “We’re trying to create an opportunity for people to gain new skills and perhaps even move their careers into different lines of inquiry,” say Mark Clanton, NCI’s deputy director.

Still unclear, Tulane officials say, is the extent to which federal funds, such as those available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will cover losses to scientific equipment damaged by the hurricane and flooding. Indeed, “that’s a dilemma,” says OSTP’s Geoffrey Grant, and one that “the [research] agencies themselves have not yet addressed.”

The upheaval of Gulf Coast research has forced Katrina-buffeted institutions to make wholesale adjustments to how they stay connected to displaced students, faculty, and staff—many relying on e-mail and Web logs (blogs). Two years ago, John McLachlan, director of the Tulane-based Center for Bioenvironmental Research, received a federal grant to create a virtual laboratory on environmental signaling and hormone mimics. “I thought I’d have 5 years to figure out how to do this. Now, I find I’m living it already, coordinating a lab without walls,” he says.

Such flexibility is useful in a coastal zone, Bullard notes. “You have to be able to live on shifting sands, [and] when a storm comes, you adapt. We’re getting pretty good at that.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Humans