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Insight & Intelligence™ : Nov 16, 2012

Learning from Sandy

New York-based research centers received a crash course on disaster preparedness from the hurricane.
  • Alex Philippidis

In addition to the 122 deaths [as of Nov. 13], hundreds of thousands of power outages, and billions of dollars in property damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm washed away thousands of mice. Just how many has yet to be confirmed, though news reports immediately after the disaster placed the number at more than 10,000—including 5,000 alone from the lab of Gordon Fishell, Ph.D., associate director of New York University’s Neuroscience Institute.

Dr. Fishell, who at deadline had not answered two email messages from GEN seeking additional information, was among researchers based at NYU’s Smilow Research Center, into which water from Sandy surged the night of the storm. For him and other Smilow researchers, help to store supplies, continue with experiments, or (worse comes to worst) start all over again came from across the U.S. including a fledgling research consortium also based in Manhattan.

“NYU and their researchers suffered a serious setback during the storm, which we’re very concerned about,” Nancy J. Kelley, J.D., founding executive director of the New York Genome Center (NYGC), told GEN. NYGC is a consortium of academic medical centers whose members include NYU and its School of Medicine. Most, but not all NYGC members are in New York City.

“We have stepped in to help them complete the sequencing runs that were being done when the machines went down during the storm, to help them with capacity that they don’t have right now, and to do the interpretation of their data,” Kelley said.

NYGC was founded in August 2010, and went public a year ago [GEN, Dec. 9, 2011] In establishing the operation, Kelley said, the genome center management “spent a lot of time thinking about what could go wrong, and how we protected against those risks.”

Protecting Your Assets

“Any operation that’s building with expensive equipment and perishable test results is going to want to put some risk management in to make sure their operations aren’t interrupted in the case of a storm or other natural disaster. That being said, there are lots of examples of scientific challenges,” Kelley said. She cited Baylor College of Medicine, which saw extensive damage from tropical storm Allison in 2001, but much less from Hurricane Rita four years later, following $2.7 million in flood protection measures: “That teaches you that you’ve really got to be careful and protect the intellectual property and assets of the organization.”

NYGC benefited from the uninterrupted service of Rockefeller University’s generator power and battery backup, allowing the center’s sequencers to continue processing samples while its freezers maintained their temperatures, even after a power blip lasting a few seconds and quickly followed by rebooting.

The genome center’s data warehouse at 375 Pearl Street, the Manhattan facility of Sabey Intergate, was knocked offline until the company quickly restored connectivity and re-established NYGC’s primary connection. NYGC stores all data in at least two locations at all times, so the disruption did not slow operations in any way, Kelley said.

“The fact everything worked was basically confirmation of the thought and the operational implementation that we had done. We had done our job right,” Kelley said. “Obviously moving forward, we’re going to think about some more things but what we did put in place worked.”

NYGC is building out a permanent 168,000-square-foot facility at 101 Avenue of the Americas, set to open in April 2013. There, floodwaters rose to a block away from the building, but the building saw no water, no broken windows, and no other damage, Kelley said. Even before Sandy, the new facility’s backup generators were located on the third floor, to prevent the sort of basement flooding that rendered useless backup generators at NYU Smilow and nearby NYU Langone Medical Center.

Planning Pays at CSHL

Proactive planning helped prevent damage to animals and samples, and contained Sandy’s effects to property damage, an hour’s drive of NYU Smilow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). After sustaining damage during Hurricane Gloria in 1985, CSHL began developing, then enhancing plans to operate during emergencies. That planning explains why the laboratory’s main campus was able to keep functioning despite power being out for four and one-half days, the laboratory’s president Bruce Stillman, Ph.D., told GEN.

The Banbury Center, used for conferences, didn’t get power back until November 11: “For it to take two weeks to restore power, it was a nightmare.”

All CSHL buildings were operating on emergency power, powered by eight diesel-fuel generators, with the lab maintaining a backup diesel supply from a distributor using its own truck, Dr. Stillman said. That allowed the laboratory to create temporary living space on campus for about 100 employees and their families—starting with the chief operating officer—whose homes were without power as temperatures plunged into the 30s (ºF). As of November 13, some 20 to 30 people still lived in the space. For the surrounding community, CSHL-powered Wi-Fi service allowed nearby residents to keep up with news and communicate with the outside world in the near-total absence of cellular and landline phone service.

“We powered down almost everything that was not essential. The essential things were to keep the animal facilities going, the freezers, and make sure that we had liquid nitrogen and CO2 deliveries,” he said. “The important thing to me was that we were able to maintain our scientific materials. We had no loss of scientific data, or physical data—samples, reagents—as far as I know.”

Before the hurricane arrived, computers were powered down so that data could be saved, except for those that maintained Internet, email, and payroll. Several programs scheduled for CSHL facilities were canceled. At the facilities department’s suggestion, elevators were moved up to top or middle floors—a decision vindicated when water reached the elevator pits.

"The Worst Storm"

CSHL did not escape the so-called Frankenstorm unscathed. Dozens of trees came down, one of which caused what Dr. Stillman called “a substantial amount of damage” to the lab’s Robertson House, a conference venue within the Banbury center: “That can be fixed. It’s not a big deal.” Meetings on photosynthesis and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis had to be canceled—but a four-day meeting on cell nuclear receptors and disease at the main campus kicked off anyway after attendees showed up as scheduled.

“This is certainly the worst storm we’ve had in the 33 years I’ve been here,” Dr. Stillman said—worse than Gloria and last year’s Hurricane Irene, which did not linger over Long Island as long as Sandy did.

CSHL used a small but powerful sign at its entrance to signify its pluck in the face of Sandy: “Science versus Sandy—Science wins.”

Emergency planning by CSHL and NYGC holds a lesson for NYU Smilow and other laboratories—the cost of backup systems and facilities resistant to storms is more than made up for by the benefits of uninterrupted research operation, from sequencing runs to mice and samples alive and available for future study. Yet even good planning by labs can be washed away if they are located someplace where infrastructure cannot handle even a heavy rain.

In New York, at least Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council President (and wanna-be successor) Christine Quinn have publicly called for measures to resist future superstorms, which can only encourage additional emergency efforts by the labs.