A Lesson for Scientists from Hurricane Sandy

Lab mice were among the victims of Hurricane Sandy (image courtesy of flickr user Rick Eh?)

Among the tally of losses from Hurricane Sandy–hundreds of lab mice that drowned when New York University’s Smilow Research Building flooded as a higher-than-expected storm surge flooded the building. There are far worse stories of death and devastation from this storm, but this small one is a reminder that it is just as important for scientists to come up with a plan for handling potential disasters as it is for the rest of us at home.

The story of the drowned lab mice is not unusual. Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, for example, lost years of research when his breast cancer samples were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And of course it’s not just hurricanes that are a threat–earthquake, fire, even a simple power outage can destroy years of work if a scientist has not prepared their lab.

So what should a scientist do? When I thought about writing this piece–as simply a reminder for friends and family in science–I was certain that someone must have researched this and written an article or created a website with useful tips. Sadly, no. But by digging deep and harnessing Facebook and Twitter, I did manage to cobble together some potentially good advice:

Check out ready.gov: FEMA’s advice page for disaster preparedness is geared for the home, but one friend noted that the agency’s advice can be easily translated for the scientific world. “What are your ‘valuables?’ What should your ‘go bag’ contain? If people need food and water for x number of days, then what do lab animals and things living in petri dishes need?,” my friend wrote on Facebook. The whole point of ready.gov is that people should prepare for all of the potential risks that they might face. The first place to start, then, is with an evaluation of those risks. Be sure to add power outage and fire to your list, because those are risks that everyone will face and that can be particularly devastating to a lab.

Have an up-to-date plan and a leader: This suggestion came from @RegisDudley. The person in charge in an emergency need not be the head of the lab, but there should be a point person who coordinates these things.

Don’t keep important things in basements that could be flooded: This is why the mice at NYU drowned. If there’s a potential for flooding in your lab building, consider keeping less essential things on the lower levels (stick a classroom down there, not cages of animals). And if you do have animals, have a plan to care for them and even evacuate them in an emergency. One friend who worked for a research lab noted that his pharmaceutical company employer would have lab techs stay in nearby hotels during bad snowstorms. The USDA has a good list of recommendations for preparing animal facilities for potential disasters.

Create backups in alternate locations: If you’ve got paper lab books, copy or scan them. If you have important files on your computer, back them up. Online backups are great for this (Lifehacker has good recommendations for online backups, but the site is currently down because its servers in Manhattan were flooded–a lesson in itself), but backups to a hard drive can also work, as long as you keep that hard drive in a separate location. You can also backup some of your supplies–Jackson Laboratories, for example, offers cryopreservation services for just this situation. And, of course, there are generators for backup power supplies, but you may not be able to rely on those to protect your work in all disaster situations.

Share: On Twitter, @biochembio noted that if biologists share or deposit their reagents or strains, they can get them back after they’ve lost research to flooded labs or thawed freezers.

The most important piece of advice, though, is that scientists should remember that people are the most important part of the scientific process, so protecting the people in your lab should be the biggest concern. Research is supposed to be reproducible, but people aren’t replaceable.

(I really wish that I was in a situation to pitch and write this as a longer story. If any science writers are reading this, would someone pick up where I’ve left off?)

One thought on “A Lesson for Scientists from Hurricane Sandy

  1. Having once been deeply involved in business continuity planning (as a computer network manager) I’m taken aback, yet not surprised, at the disaster at NYU. On the one hand, being humble in the face of an unprecedented disaster, things can go wrong despite the best planning. On the other hand, I’m baffled at news reports that NYU only anticipated a 10-foot flood surge when positioning its backup generator. Excuses like that ring hollow after Fukushima Daiichi and despite years of warnings from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Irwin Redlener, on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show this morning, also noted rhetorically that fuel pumps have been engineered to operate underwater all the time — in vessels called submarines.

    Monday-morning quarterbacking is easy, of course. It may be that NYU had to make economic or engineering tradeoffs that now look awful but that seemed reasonable at the time the decisions were made. Perhaps the animal facility was in the basement because it was competing for space with other resources. (I worked at Columbia-Presbyterian in the late 1980s and vaguely recall that its animals were housed on a high floor).

    In terms of computer networking, after 9/11 many businesses, including the one I worked for, relocated their business continuity facilities outside of Manhattan. And that was before the era of cloud computing took off. I haven’t heard that this was a problem for NYU, but 11 years after 9/11, any major institution should be able to switch its information technology operations over to a disaster recovery location fairly quickly (while this weather system was hundreds of miles wide, a backup facility located inland isn’t likely to be paralyzed at the same time as a primary site, e.g. you’d need a simultaneous hurricane and tornado to knock out both facilities).

    I agree with your point that individual scientists can, and should, protect themselves to the extent possible. While one has to rely to a significant extent on disaster recovery professionals, people who are paid to think day and night about such things, it’s better to be in control of your own destiny as much as possible. Keeping an encrypted, secure copy of one’s lab notes “in the cloud” is common sense. Frankly, not just scientists should do this — all of us have key documents worth storing securely outside our own homes or businesses.

    In terms of what to do about physical lab resources, things which aren’t virtual, I assume that the NYU department chairs have business continuity plans, e.g. the question of how to reconstitute mouse genetic stocks from offsite (partner labs) sources. My guess is that most scientists, who have limited time and money to deal with disaster planning, may not have thought deeply about how they’d rebuild their lab in the event of an emergency. But they need to, because business continuity pros aren’t necessarily specialists in molecular biology — they know things like electrical grids, highway systems, facilities management and computers, but not DNA. Ideally you’d have domain specialists (the scientists) and disaster management specialists working together to identify what can only be done at the institutional level and what needs to be the responsibility of individual labs.

    A big open question is liability — were the labs covered under some kind of NYU umbrella policy? Should labs have excess coverage that goes beyond what the institution provides? Was there negligence such that the insurance companies won’t pay out?

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