Research Teams Show Hurricane Readiness and Resilience

The GOES satellite took this image at 15:15 CDT August 25 2017 as NASA scientists flew through the eye of Hurricane Harvey. (Credit: NASA)

The GOES satellite took this image at 15:15 CDT August 25 2017 as NASA scientists flew through the eye of Hurricane Harvey. (Credit: NASA)

The 2017 hurricane season was one of the most active and destructive on record and included two major storms that affected the U.S. Gulf Coast – Harvey and Irma. Scientists who lead consortia funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative are based in this area, and they shared how they and their teams prepared for and fared after the storms.

Florida-based teams prepared for the worse as a category 5 Irma barreled towards them after causing massive destruction in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. The storm had weakened to a category 3 when it landed in south Florida, and the hurricane-ready research teams fared well.

Martin Grosell with the RECOVER consortium at the University of Miami said infrastructure had minor damage, and the campus closed for 8-10 days. Though it slowed the group’s research progress, they are back on schedule and repairs are approaching completion. Their storm preparations to preserve fish that they use in oil spill studies really paid off, “Our fish did much better than we could have hoped for, in part, due to the transfer to the SUSTAIN tank.” Ironically, the safest place for many of these important fish during a hurricane was in a machine that creates hurricanes! Read more about the fish transfer to the SUSTAIN facility, the world’s largest hurricane simulator.

Tracey Sutton with the DEEPEND consortium at Nova Southeastern University reported that their faculty labs, designed to withstand the most powerful hurricanes, did not sustain damage and their backup generators provided continuous power that kept their samples safe. The CARTHE team at the University of Miami similarly reported escaping Irma with little damage. Professor Shuyi Chen and her team ran coupled atmosphere-wave-ocean models for both hurricanes showing different characteristics that produced distinct impacts.

Texas-based teams were not as fortunate during Hurricane Harvey, which caused damage to the Texas coast that to-date is the costliest recorded.

Antonietta Quigg with the ADDOMEx consortium at The Texas A&M University-Galveston reported the campus sustained water damage and closed for safety reasons. Faculty, staff, and students living on the mainland were not able to return to work; however, the team rallied as Quigg described, “ADDOMEx’ers in Galveston worked at home on papers, read, and planned with colleagues to look at oil spills in and around the Houston area. Many team members worked very hard to help family, friends and colleagues who had been negatively impacted… mucking out houses, cooking, and other activities.” A few days later, team members collected samples to assess impacts in Galveston Bay, finding some elevated presence of oil.

Ed Buskey leads the DROPPS consortium at The University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, which sustained a direct hit. Estimates of damage are in the tens of millions. “Everything happened so fast…that was the most challenging thing,” recalled Buskey. “We have a detailed hurricane plan, but storms that form in the Bay of Campeche are the ones that really get us.” Storms that move across the Gulf from the Atlantic usually give them about a week’s preparation time. “At our first two planning meetings, Harvey was a Tropical Storm, and then the word was that it would be a Category 1, not likely for a mandatory evacuation. We started our preparations with that in mind.” The next morning, the forecast was for a Category 3 storm with mandatory evacuation off the island by 9 PM that night. “Our labs closed at 1. We really had to rush to finish preparations at the institute, and then prep our homes.”

Buskey said the team did a fantastic job, backing up hard drives, covering equipment with plastic, and moving things to a LEED Gold certified building. “That was supposed to be the strongest building on our campus, designed to withstand Category 3.” However, it was badly damaged with roof and window failures, resulting in standing water.  Most plastic-covered electronics were safe, initially, but the loss of power and air conditioning for over a week compromised them.

Damages to research equipment and facilities included a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer for oil sample analysis. A new one is on its way, thanks to the director’s discretionary funds. The outdoor mesocosm tanks stayed in place because the team filled them with water, but its heating and cooling system was damaged. The zooplankton samples used in mesocosm experiments were in storage and survived. “We were actually running a set of experiments the week that Harvey came, our last ones for DROPPS 2. Even though we cut them a few hours short, we managed to complete it.”

The protozoa cultures that they use in experiments were lost. “The storm’s intensity affected the diesel generator, it didn’t start up, and the incubators were without power for several days. Normally we have those cultures on our emergency circuits and those worked in the past, but not this time. Fortunately, those experiments were almost complete.”

Other losses included their research pier, which was destroyed when a drilling rig ship became unmoored during the storm and ran into the pier, and two monitoring stations out in the bay of the National Estuarine Research Reserve, which Buskey leads.

Buskey said they have enough to make do and get things going again, “People are scattered, some are at UTMSI, some at Harte Research Institute, spread across different floors. Everything is a little more challenging and takes extra effort, but we’re making progress. Our classes are going, we are carving out small areas of research space, and getting some equipment set up.” While it is hard to predict how long it will take, he estimates closer to year’s end before everything is done.

Buskey and other administrators are busy helping prepare insurance claims and working with FEMA to assess damages. The university provided $5M to get recovery started, and student housing, which was destroyed, is top priority. Graduate students have struggled with additional expenses of renting apartments in Corpus Christi and traveling between campuses, but construction may be complete in another month or so.

“We had really great support from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi by hosting us here and from UT Austin. Our marine science advisory council gave over $130K in personal donations for immediate help to students and some lab personnel. We are also using crowd sourcing to raise money for people here at UTMSI.”

Several DROPPS team members’ homes were nearly or completely destroyed, leaving them with only what they took when they evacuated. Others with less severe damage are steadily making repairs, though it is slow as demand for workers remains high. 

If you would like to learn about supporting Hurricane Harvey recovery at UTMSI, go to https://hornraiser.utexas.edu/project/7548.

************
The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative or GoMRI is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies.  An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research.  All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available.  The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP.  For more information, visit http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) – All Rights Reserved. Redistribution is encouraged with acknowledgement to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Please credit images and/or videos as done in each article. Questions? Contact web-content editor Nilde “Maggie” Dannreuther, Northern Gulf Institute, Mississippi State University (maggied@ngi.msstate.edu).