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Laboratory Disaster Planning: Lessons Learned from Tropical Storm Allison

Laboratory Disaster Planning: Lessons Learned from Tropical Storm Allison

What research laboratories can do before an emergency strikes to better prepare themselves and protect their samples and their data

Tracy Durnan, MBA

Tracy Wieder has worked in the field of biomedical research for 30 years, starting as a lab technician, then moving into lab manager roles, lab director roles, and finally into her current role overseeing all research laboratories at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and is a recognized expert on disaster preparedness and safety.

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Tropical Storm Allison hit the Houston metropolitan area on June 5, 2001, proving that storms do not need to be hurricanes to cause tremendous damage to research facilities. The storm dropped 32 trillion gallons of water, causing deadly flooding. Thirty-three thousand people needed emergency shelter after Allison, and there was $5 billion in damage. Approximately $1.5 billion of the damage was to the Houston Medical Center.1 The University of Houston Medical School experienced severe flooding. The basement of the Medical School building was completely filled with water, as well as halfway up the first floor. This resulted in the massive loss of research animals, which were housed in the basement. In addition, elevators were no longer functional, resulting in an inability to get liquid nitrogen supply tanks to laboratories located on upper floors. The flooding destroyed backup generators, which were also housed in the basement, leaving liquid nitrogen auto-fill units and -20 and -80 freezers without any power. This led to enormous loss of valuable, irreplaceable research samples, reagents, and cell lines. I was a laboratory manager for a large research lab located in the Medical School building when Allison hit Houston. Many lessons were learned during this event and from subsequent years of experience working in medical research laboratories in both Houston and Miami.

Houston experienced massive flooding as a result of Tropical Storm Allison, resulting in flooded streets and highways, preventing staff from getting to work to check on their laboratories. Preparing a research laboratory for a disaster is essential in allowing research to continue once the disaster has passed. Disasters include severe weather emergencies, but these are not the only disasters to which research laboratories are vulnerable. Fire is also a big risk for research labs, particularly those that store large amounts of flammables, and a risk that many labs often overlook, particularly those located in areas that are not vulnerable to severe weather emergencies. This article aims to address what research laboratories can do before an emergency strikes to better prepare themselves and protect their samples and their data.

Preparing research laboratories for disasters is multifaceted.

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It does not take long to be well-prepared, and a little time put into preparation now could save decades of research data and samples down the road. As we head once again into hurricane season, preparedness for research institutions in coastal communities could not be timelier. Many of the steps listed below are geared toward disasters that come with some degree of warning, but several of the steps are equally useful for disasters such as earthquakes and fires, which provide little or no advanced warning.

Here are the steps I recommend to all the labs I oversee to prepare for disasters:

  1. Back up all electronic data onto a shared computer drive and also to a thumb drive, which you will take with you if you have to evacuate the lab.

  2. Keep backup liquid nitrogen on hand so that liquid nitrogen storage tanks can be refilled in the event of an evacuation associated with a natural disaster. Before evacuating, fill your liquid nitrogen storage tanks to the limit allowed by your equipment. Check your operating manuals for info on what that level is. Contrary to common belief, most samples that can tolerate storage in gas phase of liquid nitrogen can also tolerate storage in liquid phase. Make sure you have proper tubes that won't allow liquid to enter the tubes. This applies to auto-fill systems as well; they can be filled up to store your samples in liquid phase instead of gas phase. This could mean the difference between losing all your samples and not losing any samples. After a disaster has passed, electricity could still be out for days, weeks, or even months. Without electricity, elevators do not work. Without elevators, liquid nitrogen tanks cannot be brought up to floors above ground level. Filling up storage tanks and having backup supply tanks on hand are critical for getting through the post-disaster period before power returns.

  3. Ensure all contact information is current for alarm monitoring systems and make sure all freezers are plugged into emergency power outlets. Move as many samples from -80 freezers into liquid nitrogen freezers as possible based on the tolerance of your samples for storage in liquid nitrogen. Having backup power is a good start, but it is no guarantee against sample loss. Generators are powered by fuel, and if the disaster lasts long enough and people are unable to come refill the gasoline in the generators, then the generators will stop working in generally two to three days. Liquid nitrogen is a safer storage option for any samples that can tolerate liquid nitrogen temperatures.

  4. Update laboratory contact lists and ensure all lab members have copies so that staff can check on each other post-disaster.

  5. Take photos of all equipment and of the entire lab so that, should the worst happen, pictures will be available to prove to insurance companies that the lab was in good shape before the disaster. Equipment photos may then be used to assist in making lists of costs for insurance claims. This is a very important step for all laboratories to take, no matter where they are located, as this information is critical for making insurance claims in the event of a fire or a natural disaster, including earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, mudslides, and flooding.

  6. Maintain current chemical and reagent lists so that again, should the worst happen, data will be available for making insurance claims. Keep the lab and equipment pictures along with chemical and reagent inventories on the shared computer drive and back up onto a thumb drive. Again, this is an important step for all laboratories to take. Keep a list of chemicals in the lab outside of the lab itself to be given to firefighters in the event of a fire. If firefighters do not know what chemicals are inside the lab and the risks associated with chemicals exposed to fire (explosions, hazardous gases), they will not be able to enter the labs to fight the fire.

  7. Send critical samples for off-site storage. These are samples that are not commercially available and are critical to your research. The best option is to send a box of samples to a collaborator who works in an entirely different region from where your lab is located because this is an inexpensive option, costing you only the price of shipping the samples. If this option is not available to you, you can find companies online that specialize in long-term sample storage and go that route instead.

  8. If you work with research animals that are unique and not commercially available, preserve these animal strains through embryo cryo-preservation and/ or sperm freezing. Engage a company that specializes in these services to ensure the frozen samples will be properly stored.

  9. Before evacuating, unplug all equipment that does not need to stay plugged in, move all equipment away from windows, cover all equipment with plastic tarps, and secure the tarps with duct tape to prevent water damage. Do not forget to cover computer equipment as well and to move equipment off the floor if you are located on a lower floor.

  10. Check into policies at your institute regarding assigning one lab member as essential personnel to allow them to come check on the lab after the disaster has passed, but before the institution has reopened.

Lessons learned from Tropical Storm Allison:

  1. Whenever possible, move animal facilities up. Avoid placing animal rooms in basements or at ground level whenever possible. During Tropical Storm Allison, all loss of animal life was due to animal room locations in the basement.

  2. Move emergency generators up from basements and ground floor locations as well. Flooded generators during Tropical Storm Allison resulted in complete loss of power to all freezers in the Medical School building, leading to catastrophic losses of samples.

  3. Store critical liquid nitrogen samples in liquid phase, not in gas phase. Liquid nitrogen was the only thing that saved any samples during Tropical Storm Allison. Samples stored in gas phase of liquid nitrogen have very little liquid nitrogen in place to keep samples cold. In situations where liquid nitrogen cannot be secured for weeks at a time, liquid phase storage of samples may be the only thing that saves critical samples.

Taking a few simple steps now can protect your research from devastating loss in the future.

1. ABC 13 Eyewitness News. Tropical Storm Allison blew through Houston on this day 17 years ago., June 5, 2018.