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Six Months Since Harvey and Rebuilding Continues at Marine Science Institute

Six Months Since Harvey and Rebuilding Continues at Marine Science Institute

It's been six months since Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast and the students, faculty and staff of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) in Port Aransas are still working to pick up the pieces of their lives and get their work back on track.

Students and volunteers clean up the beach in Port Aransas near the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. Photo courtesy of UTMSI

"I am still amazed at the destruction of the storm," said Amber Hardison, an assistant professor of marine science. "Even six months later there are still piles of debris all over the island. There are businesses that are still closed. Houses are being torn down. The time it is taking to get back to normalcy has been surprising."

Nearly all of the students, faculty and staff of UTMSI were affected by the storm in some way. Some lost their offices. Some lost their research. Some lost their homes. Some lost everything.

As Harvey roared toward the Texas coast last August 23, most of the staff and students were preparing for a tropical storm or, at worst, a Category 1 storm. As they sat in an all-hands-on-deck meeting where they were discussing the steps they would take to storm-proof the campus, phones started going off with alerts. The storm that was coming was a Category 3.

"In an instant, the situation had suddenly become much graver than anyone anticipated," said Bryan Black, an associate professor of marine science.

Students, faculty and staff scrambled to make additional preparations for the storm. Equipment was placed off the floor and covered in plastic sheeting. Hard drives were backed up. Researchers tried to protect fish and other live specimens critical to their research. Any samples that could be taken were loaded into cars alongside personal belongings—suitcases and children's toys. The entire town was ordered to evacuate.

Aubrey Converse, a graduate student in Peter Thomas' lab, was trying to do everything to make sure her zebra fish and Atlantic croaker survived the storm.

"We only had a few hours to get everything done. We made sure everything was fed and as clean as possible," she said. Converse left the fish critical to her research for her PhD behind, packed up her four-year-old daughter and headed for San Antonio to ride out the storm.

UTMSI Director and Chair of the Department of Marine Science Bob Dickey by the destroyed research pier. Courtesy of UTMSI

The devastation that greeted everyone when they returned was stunning. Half of Converse's Atlantic croaker were dead from lack of oxygen when the storm knocked out power to the air pumps in their tanks.

"I'm at least six months behind now," Converse said. She and other students have had to move planned graduation dates back as a result of the storm.

Hardison was one of the faculty members who lost offices when the roof was torn off the main building and water poured in. Most of the sensitive and specialized equipment she and her students use to analyze samples, like a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometers, is gone.

Black's office was one of the very few untouched spaces on campus, but his home was severely damaged. The interior was filled with storm surge and had to be completely gutted.

"Having damage to your home takes a lot of bandwidth. It's time consuming," Black said.

The effects of the storm have been wide-ranging, touching nearly everyone on campus. Most people had to relocate from Port Aransas to Corpus Christi or Padre Island, where there were apartments available while their homes were repaired.

Students and faculty described the frustration of long commutes from nearby towns, a shortage of contractors on the island and not being able to find childcare. Many of the island's daycare centers were damaged, and some have not reopened. Others have spouses who are out of work after many businesses on the island were forced to close. Some are still living out of suitcases.

There have been bright spots following the storm, though. Officials at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi offered lab and classroom space to UTMSI staff and students, a move that has been met with much appreciation. Hundreds of volunteers showed up on the island after the storm to help gut flooded houses. Private donors, including many members of the Marine Science Advisory Council, raised tens of thousands of dollars to support students, staff and scientists who lost belongings in the storm. The donations have helped students cover the difference in rent on their temporary housing and covered tuition for the extra semesters it will take to graduate.

"The university and the department have been really helpful," Converse said.

Signs of progress are starting to show. Some student housing is expected to reopen in March. Some labs may reopen this summer.

But the pace of the progress, while understandable, is still frustrating to many.

"The most difficult thing is feeling so unsettled," said Hardison. "I know my grad students need me, they need my help, my confidence. They are going through a very stressful work and life situation as well and they are looking to me, and I've found that is a little difficult to navigate when I feel the same stress and uncertainty that they do about the situation."

Some worry that with other hurricanes and natural disasters hitting the news, people will forget about the Texas Gulf Coast or fail to realize that—in addition to the rebuilding that needs to happen to keep important scientific research moving forward—work also remains to help the people affected by the storm.

"People forget that this is people's lives and livelihoods at stake," Hardison said.

To support the University of Texas Marine Science Institute's rebuilding efforts, click here. For updates on rebuilding, click here. 

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Tuesday, 07 February 2023

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