Effect Measure

It’s not like no one thought Galveston could ever be hit by a monster storm. The city was almost destroyed in The Great Storm of 1900 which struck on September 8 of that year and killed 6000 people. The Thomas Edison Company has historic film footage of the destruction. So it seems a bit odd (I understate) that the geniuses at the Department of Homeland Security and NIH decided that Galveston was a good place for one of the first two high containment biodefense laboratories to be built after 9/11 (the other is situated in a densely populated neighborhood in Boston, another sterling choice). But put in Galveston they did and now it’s almost built. And another monster storm (track it in real time here) is bearing down on Galveston so the lab is being evacuated before it goes under water. Some of the locals are wryly amused:

Here at the Biodefense Barbeque, we tip our hats to the visionaries in Washington and at the University of Texas System that decided to put a huge lab handling the most dangerous and exotic diseases in the world on a barrier island known for periodically being cataclysmically obliterated by hurricanes. Maybe they were taking George Bush’s rhetoric denying global warming a little more seriously than prudent planners would. (Texas Biodefense Barbeque)

Whether you are amused or not depends on whether you think it’s funny to scare people so you can rack up pork barrel projects with no particular value but significant downsides (and here, passim). The site selection certainly speaks to a colossal incompetence, a monumental stupidity and a cynicism almost unparalleled in the annals of American politics.

Picture these guys digging around for the infected rhesus monkeys, ferrets, mice and rats:

Probably a baseless worry. I’m sure it’s perfectly safe. They told us so.


  1. #1 slovenia
    September 13, 2008

    Dang! I can’t get the “has historic film footage” link to link. Is this my neo-Luddite problem?

  2. #2 Constance Reader
    September 13, 2008

    What, real estate prices were too high on the San Andreas? Or did they lose a bid to combine it with the tornado tracking center at the University of Oklahoma?

    With that level of stupidity, the jokes just write themselves.

  3. #3 Embiggened Cromulence
    September 13, 2008

    Why build it there? Think of all the money to be made cleaning up the mess and rebuilding it. Again and again and again.

  4. #4 Peter Mc
    September 13, 2008

    Free saline?

  5. #5 caia
    September 13, 2008

    I guess it’s a good thing it’s only almost built. They won’t have brought in the Ebola yet.

    And after all, after Ike, Galveston will surely never get hit again, right? Right?

    I’d go on, but my doctor told me I was over the recommended daily limit for sarcasm.

  6. #6 D Dearborn
    September 13, 2008

    It was built in a known hurricane area intentionally. When the time is right the same people that let out the antrax will allow something horrible to be released at a critical
    point. And of course it will be blamed on “natural causes”

  7. #7 pft
    September 13, 2008

    In 1984, security meant insecurity, peace meant war, truth meant lie. Hate to say it, but 1984 is here. Thinks of it that way and everything makes perfect sense.

  8. #8 S
    September 13, 2008

    Revere –

    It’s just too much. As one earlier poster already pointed out, at least the thing went underwater before it was hosting dangerous pathogens.

    Debate on such topics should only take place over the range of reasonable options. Building such a facility in an obviously vulnerable location is outside the bounds of reasonable discussion.

  9. #9 Lora
    September 14, 2008

    Actually, I have a colleague who directed the installation of UTMB’s BSL-3 lab there. I asked her this very same question. It has to do with the site design; the facility is sort of inside a big concrete containment thingy that can be sealed up against any weather, including hurricanes, and it has its own utilities. The biohazard areas are kept separate from the administrative stuff, so if they have to re-build anything (which they won’t very often: concrete lasts a long, long time) it’ll just be offices. The air handling is the trickiest bit, apparently.

    Also, it is on an island, so in the event of civil unrest or quarantine, they can control access more easily by closing the bridge. Doesn’t stop boats, but better than letting just anyone come and go. People are the biggest danger, really–you can make buildings that are quite weather-resistant out of concrete and rebar, real cheap. Controlling the humans is harder. That’s why the Boston installation scares me more.

  10. #10 revere
    September 14, 2008

    Lora: That sounds good on paper, but consider this. In the event of a hurricane, such as Ike, this is the ideal time to plan a security breach of the facility. In the general chaos someone would just have to lie low, only a few people would be left in the building and then make your move. And why have to have a facility built to withstand hurricanes when most parts of the country don’t have them. Would you put one on top of the water reservoir and then design it so that it never leaks into the reservoir (you hope)? Or put it in tornado alley and design it to withstand an F5? Or put it in the middle of a densely populated area and then design it so nothing ever gets out? Oh, I forgot. They just did that in Boston.

  11. #11 Lora
    September 14, 2008

    Good points, I agree it’s a risk. I’m just saying, I agree with my colleague that islands are a good place for these things–and there aren’t many islands that don’t catch hurricanes, nor’easters, or some sort of horrible weather.

    The balance they have to make is, if they put the BSL-3s and -4s in North Sheepshagger Armpit, Nowhere, then how are they going to hire people to work there? “We have a fabulous job offer for you, it pays at a premium government pay grade, but the catch is that you have to live in a desert with no grocery store, shopping, services or schools for 200 miles around. You’ll have to buy your daily needs from our convenient gov’t commissary…” OTOH, you can make a decent safety argument about many many parts of the US. Sometimes it comes down to “Which city will give us the fewest NIMBY hassles?”

    The Boston thing scares me too, frankly, much more so because there are documented accidents in their existing BSL-3, they haven’t addressed the safety concerns brought up, and as you said, they are in a very densely populated area.

    Which of the other sites submitting proposals do you like better? Hamilton, MT, UG-Athens, Flora Mississippi, Manhattan, KS?

  12. #12 revere
    September 14, 2008

    Lora: Or we could ask, “Do we need all these BSL4?” Or all those BSSK3s, for that matter, which scare me more.

  13. #13 Grants manager
    September 14, 2008

    Actually, UTMB has two BSL-4 labs.

    There is the “Shope Lab” located in the “Keiller Building”. This is an approximately 2200 (actual) square foot BSL-4 space. Secondly, there is the so-called (by UTMB, not the feds) “Galveston National Lab”, with a huge 25,000 (actual) square foot BSL-4 space. The latter lab is “99% complete”. The former lab has been operating since 2003 and holds just about every exotic disease known to man, with the exception of smallpox.

    UTMB has admitted that at least the basement of the Shope Lab has flooded. (No work on what lab systems it contained – e.g. effluent systems, possibly.) UTMB says that the larger “Galveston National Lab” is intact “as far as we can see”, apparently indicating nobody has been inside to assess damage.

    See here: http://utmbinfo.com/2008/09/13/special-bulletin-galveston-national-lab-keiller-building-shope-lab/

  14. #14 revere
    September 14, 2008

    GM: Yes, I know there is a smaller, functioning BSL4 there. That’s obviously why they needed still another one, right? Plus Southwestern also has one. That will make three in one state, 20% of the total of all BSL4 labs. Thanks for the link and your efforts in keeping an eye on things.

  15. #15 beachgirl
    September 14, 2008

    Building a concrete bunker will not necessarily weather-protect something built on a barrier island. Barrier islands are essentially large sand bars constantly changed by erosion and deposition. Given enough wind and water, these islands could actually wash away from under the buildings.

  16. #16 Lora
    September 14, 2008

    “Or we could ask, “Do we need all these BSL4?” Or all those BSSK3s, for that matter, which scare me more.”

    Yeah, I was sorta wondering if that was what you were really getting at. Didn’t want to assume though.

    Care to elaborate on why the BSL3s scare you more? I used to work with those and I know why they scare me (long and boring story), but your reasons are likely different.

  17. #17 revere
    September 14, 2008

    Lora: Several reasons.

    i. The stuff you work with in BSL3 is often more contagious and of public health concern than BSL4 (almost all virsues, and while there are no treatments or vaccines for things like Ebola, it isn’t very contagious; H5N1 or SARS, worry me more)

    ii. The personnel in BSL4 are much more experienced and well trained than in BSL3 and still accidents happen;

    iii. There are so many more BSL3 with many new and inexperienced workers in them. Like cars, the more drivers the more accidents.

    iv. Less oversight for BSL3 than BSL4.

    v. My concern runs counter to the general perception (including the perception among lab workers), so they are less vigilant

    I might think of other reasons but this is my initial list.

  18. #18 steve
    September 14, 2008

    The same people who would put Defense Information Systems Agencys (DISA) Contingency Operations (COOP) site below sea level in Slidell, LA.

  19. #19 Duncan
    September 14, 2008



    It never goes out of style.

  20. #20 M. Randolph Kruger
    September 14, 2008

    It is indeed rare that I agree with Revere but then again when speaking of anything beyond BSL-3 then you are talking biowarfare. Nay you say. Well you have to make the next iteration of a bug in your shop to be able to make the vaccine for it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnt. But you still have your little nasty bastard floating around inside the facility.

    They also require power to keep them cranked in the fridges and I really dont like the idea of removing them to “safe faciilities” when speaking of a transfer in case of a storm. Revere has likely seen some really ugly bugs, I have seen some too but they were at work in people. But I was trained in biowarfare in the military and later became the person in charge of it for our squadron. There isnt any of it that I would like to have in my backyard. But, if you are going to build it I dont think that I would wave a flag at a hurricane and say “over here.” and put it in Galveston. There are much bigger considerations and believe it or not the possibility of a Gulf tsunami is large and growing larger every day.


    To heck with hurricanes, this would breach break and smack both the city and this facility into small pieces… make no mistake of it. It also might be buried under sand several feet deep. So you survive the wave but die of super-malaria a couple of weeks later? Think not? The sea wall was breached by 25 foot waves on top of the 11 foot surge this weekend. And we are told that its always “safe”. Safe is relative to the situation such as flat sea, blue skies and no quakes 1600 miles away in Puerto Rico. Closure rate from one of the faults is only 1 hour. They would still be waiting to make the “command decision” when it hit.

    Nope. Since the moon is currently unavailable for this kind of research I think that the number of facilities should be cut by one half to less than 25 in the US en toto. Bio is the nastiest warfare out there and of course they all call it research, but making the suspected next iteration of the bug before it gets here gets you a Nobel and a pot load of money. Super bugs make super money.

    They will of course ignore Revere and me in the same breath…even if McCain doesnt get elected.


  21. #21 tofubo
    September 15, 2008

    Contact (1997)

    S.R. Hadden: First rule in government spending: why build one when you can have two at twice the price?

  22. #22 Tom Tancredo
    September 16, 2008

    The lab was already working on severve virus and has been in operation for over a year. It was just the building was not complete (if that is supoosed to releave further concerns). There is a huge proliferation of theese labs. It should be a huge news story but let’s see . . . hurricane destruction, national economy meltdown and a nasty political race. I wish this could even have a chance at making headlines.

  23. #23 Tom Tancredo
    September 16, 2008

    Oh, and it was not the only Biosafety Level 4 Lab on Galvestion Island. Shhhheeshh . . . you are not supposed to know that, dang it, I opened my mouth. It was the second BSL-4, the first one is just not well published.

    I can only encourage everyone to do some research and find out if you have a BSL-4 in your own state. Chances are if you do not live in an area that has earth quakes and tornadoes you do and or you soon will.

    To think only eight years ago the US was such a wimply place that we only had 2-3 BSL-4. This is patriotism at a grand scale! If you do not belive in the BSL-4 lab on every corner then you are not a patriot. God bless the good ol US of A.

  24. #24 Grants manager
    September 16, 2008

    According to a post at utmbinfo.com late yesterday, UTMB has recently restored emergency power to the BSL-4s and (apparently most) of the other research labs.

    But the emergency power does not apparently keep the freezers running. They have gotten 60,000 pounds of dry ice onto the island and are asking for certain lab worker to come in today (Tuesday) to replenish the supply in the labs.

    What I’m wondering is what building systems are brought up by the emergency power. Can they maintain negative pressure in the BSL-4s and power the air supply systems? And, if not, how does one safety replenish the dry ice that’s (hopefully) keeping all the BSL-4 nasties frozen?

  25. #25 Grants manager
    September 16, 2008


    I have may misinterpreted UTMB’s information (see: http://www.utmbinfo.com). The emergency power may in fact keep the freezers cold. It’s a bit ambiguous.

  26. #26 design
    September 19, 2008

    If the goal was to study the impact of bioweapons in a hurricane I would call it a success.

  27. #27 Grace Colasurdo
    September 20, 2008

    I’m sure TBTP pre-programmed the bad germs to implode upon contact with saline. Too bad they didn’t think to do it to themselves as well…..

    (as the Wicked Witch of the West pedals by….)

  28. #28 Phillip Huggan
    September 7, 2009

    Lora that makes me wonder if the PNAC Limbaugh base would function well in a bad pandemic. The survivalists and farmers in general would know enough to live off the land. I think University cities would be fine, free from riots. The reality blinders are not a good thing, but I get the impression radical Right might be obedient enough to cancel out the unscienceness and not panic. There are areas of the world already without civil order, but of the USA/Canada/UK et al researchers, the radical Right is maybe a small weak link; judgement day proclaimations wouldn’t be calming.

    Along this lines food may be the first thing that keeps people from staying at home. It could be stored or delivered by anyone, if the transportation, power, water and Mrs. Obama farms (or grain stores) were available. Right now only two months of grain stores globally, not enough to wait for a vaccine assuming no impairment of civil defense distribution and assuming 100% vaccine development processes.

  29. #29 cyclonerita
    March 24, 2010

    Tropical Cyclone 02W still has maximum sustained winds near 46 mph but one thing changed: it has been named “Omais.”

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