UT Marine Science Institute still in shambles after Harvey

PORT ARANSAS, Texas (AP) — Jagged splinters of wood stick out of the shoreline — all that’s left of a pier that once stretched 100 yards into the Gulf of Mexico.

White plastic tarps flap in the whipping December wind atop dozens of roofs that failed to withstand the brutal force of a hurricane. Small buildings nearby are caved in, while sturdier ones are stripped to the studs to prevent the spread of mold.

The 72-acre plot looks like an abandoned town from the 1970s.

Only it’s not an abandoned town. It’s the University of Texas at Austin’s once-thriving Marine Science Institute, the first of its kind on the Gulf. It’s been four months since Hurricane Harvey decimated the coastal town of Port Aransas — where the institute calls home — and officials still are months from bringing research efforts back online.

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Faculty and students have been displaced, many to Texas A&M University’s Corpus Christi campus, millions of dollars of equipment has been destroyed and decades of research that cannot be replicated has been lost.

Institute leaders still are assessing the damage, which already has filled a 3,500-line spreadsheet, but the cost to rebuild will be in the “many tens of millions of dollars,” said Robert Dickey, institute director.

But they will rebuild, Dickey said. And they will be better prepared for the next hurricane.

“We want it done as quickly as possible, but it has to be done right,” Dickey told the Houston Chronicle . “We’ll apply what we learned from this storm to our redesign.”

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Bryan Black thought he was prepared for Harvey.

In the days leading up to the storm, he and his fellow researchers stacked their computers and other sensitive equipment on desks, covering everything with clear plastic tarps. They halted experiments and locked up scientific samples on shelves high above the ground. They bought food, water and other supplies, thinking they’d ride out the storm at the institute.

But in the middle of a morning meeting Aug. 24, everyone’s phones started buzzing. Harvey was now expected to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane. They needed to evacuate the island by nightfall.

Scientists started euthanizing thousands of research fish that wouldn’t survive without constant attention. They secured rescue turtles in a sturdy metal building and transported about 30 marine birds — including pelicans — to an employee’s parents’ home for safekeeping.

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Black gathered boxes of important documents and slides of samples, stacking them in his car alongside his family’s personal belongings. He picked up his 6-year-old son, Henry, from kindergarten and drove to a hotel about 200 miles away in McAllen to wait out the storm.

When Harvey finally made landfall Aug. 25 between Port Aransas and Port O’Connor, it had upgraded to a Category 4 — the first of that magnitude to hit Texas in 56 years.

Winds whipped through the island at 130 mph, ripping into buildings and sending gravel smashing through windows. The storm toppled power lines, leaving the area without electricity for at least a week, and annihilated the plumbing that drew salt water to campus.

Three football fields’ worth of roofing was destroyed, student housing either collapsed or flooded significantly, and thousands of research fish died after going for days without oxygen.

A drilling rig broke free, slamming into the school’s research pier and destroying instruments that reported environmental data back to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Even the school’s newly renovated Estuarine Research Center — built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane and 130 mph winds — was no match for Harvey. The center’s roof failed under the storm’s intense, wind-driven rain, filling its seven principal labs on the second and third floors with water and destroying millions of dollars worth of equipment.

Black was lucky — neither his laboratory nor office were severely damaged by the storm. But when Dickey finally returned to the institute five days later, he found not a single building untouched.

“I’ve been through seven or eight hurricanes; I’ve brought facilities back before,” Dickey said. “This is probably the worst damage I’ve seen institutionally in all my years.”

There still are days when the internet connection in Port Aransas is too spotty for Victoria Congdon to make it to class.

Congdon’s classmates were scattered across South Texas by Harvey, so her professors decided to teach online for the rest of the semester to accommodate everyone.

But the situation is not ideal.

“Even in December, we are still having issues with the internet,” said Congdon, a 31-year-old doctoral student studying seagrass. “It just happened the other day where we lost service and got kicked out of class, and we had to talk to a professor to explain that it happened again.”

This is one of many solutions school officials have tried to cobble together for their students, at a time when more than half of the institute’s 50 or so faculty members and post-graduate students have been forced to pursue their education and research elsewhere.

Most went to Texas A&M’s Corpus Christi campus, where officials worked diligently to make room for the unexpected influx.

Larry McKinney, executive director of the school’s Harte Research Institute, said he reached out to Dickey to offer assistance after the storm.

“They’re 18 miles across the bay; I can almost see it,” McKinney said. “We were in great shape, so it felt like the natural thing to do.”

Harte is also a marine research institute, so it largely had the laboratory and classroom space that displaced faculty and students needed. Some students went out of state, including to Atlanta’s Emory University.

Congdon is part of a team at the Port Aransas institute that has been studying seagrass since 2011, so she said it was important for them to get samples as quickly as possible following the hurricane.

“It’s a horrible situation, but a lot of us are trying to use this to shed light on what sort of impacts do these disturbances have on our ecosystems, especially with the predicted changes in intensity and how frequent they are,” she said. “We’re hoping to get an idea of how resilient these species are.”

It could be a year before that question is answered, however: Most of the equipment in Congdon’s lab was destroyed, and she can’t test samples until the school gets replacements.

Harte scientists provided a place for Congdon’s team to test 700 water quality samples, she said.

“Without (Harte), it would have been a nightmare,” she said.

But Harte did not have the equipment necessary to do more specialized testing. So the samples are sitting in freezers until the foreseeable future.

The sound of pouring water now greets Aubrey Converse when she walks the hallway to her lab on rainy days.

The water is spilling into the women’s restroom through a hole in the roof — just another post-Harvey reality she faces as one of the few graduate students who have remained on the island.

Converse, 27, stuck it out in Port Aransas because her fish are here. The fish that survived, at least.

She has spent years studying the steroid receptors in fish ovaries, which could have implications in future cancer treatments. She uses two different kinds of fish because they are so genetically similar to humans.

But the lengthy power outage meant her croaker fish, which can grow to be a foot long and are housed in a building near the research pier, were starved of oxygen during the storm. Half of them died, and the other half were delayed in reaching their reproductive maturity due to lack of appropriate light conditions.

Converse scrambled to find replacement fish, calling every bait shop she could find. It was harder than she had anticipated.

“All the boats had been demolished,” Converse said. “Thankfully I found some, and I begged the man to hold the fish for an hour until I got there.”

Most of her much smaller, two-inch zebrafish survived in a closet in an administration building — a closet that now serves as Converse’s lab.

She had been in the middle of an experiment with the babies when Harvey hit. Neither the babies nor her experiment survived.

Converse is just now restarting her experiments, a delay of about four months. The setback also delayed her spring graduation.

Converse is now hoping to graduate in August. But that’s merely a hope.

“Of course (it’s) not certain yet, and (it’s) quite possible it could go into the fall,” she added.

Dickey said there are three or four students whose research was so impacted by Harvey that they can’t graduate on time. The school plans to take care of them as well, covering the cost of tuition with endowment money. They also raised money to help students with housing.

“We take care of our students,” he said.

Dickey plans to use Harvey’s destruction on the institute as an opportunity to rebuild stronger and safer.

When all the damage is assessed and the insurance money rolls in, Dickey plans to “harden” the buildings against hurricanes by installing polycarbonate windows, bitumen roofs — rated against wind, fire and hail — and resistant materials for doors.

“We need to make everything more resilient,” he said.

The structures need to withstand a Category 4 storm. They need to fare as well as the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium’s center on Summerland Key did during Hurricane Irma.

The Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration, which focuses on coral reef restoration, was right in Irma’s path when the storm bore down on the Florida Keys in September. But the center had recently undergone a $7 million renovation that, among other things, shored it up against a Category 5 hurricane.

Though several outdoor tanks were severally damaged, the building held, according to a Sept. 19 summary posted on its website.

“As the storm passed, our backup systems for electricity were fully functional and our coral gene-bank, and seed stock for restoring the coral reef tract, remained safe inside with running seawater systems, aeration and other critical life support,” the summary stated. “The entire building . is secure with minimal or no impact.”

Still, Mote had a lot of cleanup to do. And it would be months before scientists returned to normal research operations, according to the summary.

Dickey is hopeful his students can return to living on campus by February. Next, they’ll tackle the offices and laboratories.

If all goes smoothly, the institute’s labs will be up and running by mid-spring.

“Our students, faculty and staff have been strong throughout this whole ordeal,” Dickey said. “We’ve hit a rough road, but we’ll make it back bit by bit.”


Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com