The proposed GNL facility will be designed to safely support all of
the superimposed loads applied to the building and to resist 140 mile-
per-hour hurricane force winds. Also, as required by the National
Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, it will be designed and
constructed to the highest building protection classification category
of IV. Furthermore, the proposed GNL will be designed with regard to
its location within a 100-year flood plain. For example, the BSL-4
laboratories will be located above the extreme 25-foot storm surge that
might occur during a category 4 or 5 hurricane. In addition to standby
generators to provide power in the event of a power outage, the
proposed GNL facility will have a distributed on-line uninterruptible
power supply module or a fuel cell power supply to power the BSL-4
biosafety cabinets, BSL-3 enhanced biosafety cabinets, critical
building control panels and alarms.
In addition to designing for severe weather conditions, operating
procedures will call for a lockdown of all infectious materials and
decontamination of high-level biocontainment laboratories in the event
of an approaching hurricane. Storm preparedness will be based on
approximately 24-hour notice of probable landfall, taking into account
the predicted strength of a storm. This allows sufficient time to close
down high containment operations, should this be deemed necessary,
including the management of animals.
UTMB officials have worked for years to convince local residents that the new lab _ and the existing ones _ are safe. Their facilities are built to withstand tornadoes, which can have stronger winds than many hurricanes. And dangerous agents are stored in powerful industrial refrigerators, with chemicals that can keep them cool for at least three weeks.
University spokeswoman Chris Comer said the national lab, which is not yet open for research or specimens, withstood this weekend's storm well. At the campus's other high security labs, there was some minor flooding in an unused basement and a couple of generators failed, she said, but nothing that endangered any of the research conducted there. Every potentially dangerous agent was in vaulted storage or refrigerators long before Ike hit.
But accidents do happen and UTMB isn't immune to them.
In January, university officials temporarily shut down a biohazard lab after an internal door failed twice during experiments with the avian flu. No pathogens were released, and no one fell ill. In 2005, a different door failed, the result of being mistakenly programmed to open during a power failure.
In the last five years, UTMB has recorded 17 cases of potential exposure to infectious diseases, none of which resulted in infections. Only one case - where a lab worker was pricked by a needle used on a mouse being treated for anthrax poisoning - was serious enough to be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Scientists on Galveston Island sealed up highly infectious germs days before Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf coast and officials say the deadly agents have stayed safely stored despite the mighty storm.
The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is home to two high-level biohazard labs where experiments are conducted on small amounts of such highly infectious germs as the virus that causes bird flu.
But while Hurricane Ike was churning in the Gulf of Mexico, ongoing experiments on hemorrhagic fever and encephalitis gradually shut down before the storm hit. Anything left over was incinerated, said Raul Reyes, a UTMB spokesman.
The labs generally have a lighter experiment workload during hurricane season, so many of the germs used in other times of the year already were sealed away and refrigerated, Reyes said.
As Ike moved in, dry ice was added to the refrigerators, in the event of failure of generators backing up the emergency power systems.
"Everything worked in terms of the research side the way it's supposed to. We locked it down. We made sure there was no danger to the public, to our employees or to the community. Containment within containment within containment is working," Reyes said.
The research enterprise remains a high priority, and we are working very hard to maintain the integrity of the research specimens and to keep the research animals healthy.
All labs that have not yet sent an E-1 early returner to assess the lab’s condition should send their E-1 returner Wednesday. E-1 staff needing to replenish dry ice should also return. Please wear closed-toed shoes. Also, please be sure to observe the City of Galveston’s 6:00 PM curfew and remember that violators are subject to arrest and a $2,000 fine.
We are still working on a plan to meet the electrical requirements for the freezers located in McCullough, John Sealy Annex and Pharmacology.
Only those personnel who have been asked to ice down freezers will be allowed in. CLARIFICATION ON EARLIER POST: We have restored emergency power to MRB, Building 17, BSB, GNL, Shope Lab, Old Shrine and Surgical Research Annex. Departments that have research labs with research freezers in any OTHER buildings need to send their E1 early-return staff to campus today to replenish dry ice.
Although city officials have said that UTMB will be among the first to receive power, we don’t expect that to happen for two to four weeks. As a result, UTMB will remain on emergency status and in lock-down mode for an indefinite period of time.