Galveston high security laboratory: dumb and dumber

The last time we looked at the high containment laboratory in Galveston, Texas, it was directly in the path of Hurricane Ike. Flooding from Ike devastated Galveston but it was a comparatively weak storm, Category 2 on the Sumner Simpson scale. Katrina was a Cat 4. The worst storms are the huge Category 5 affairs. So Galveston got off pretty well as far as storm intensity goes, although the water damage was catastrophic. To remind you, our post on that previous occasion was, "Why would any sane person put a Level 4 biodefense lab in Galveston?" It turns out that now that the storm has passed, others are asking the same question:

Much of the University of Texas medical school on this island suffered flood damage during Hurricane Ike, except for one gleaming new building, a national biological defense laboratory that will soon house some of the most deadly diseases in the world.

How a laboratory where scientists plan to study viruses like Ebola and Marburg ended up on a barrier island where hurricanes regularly wreak havoc puzzles some environmentalists and community leaders.

"It's crazy, in my mind," said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer in Houston. "I just find an amazing willingness among the people on the Texas coast to accept risks that a lot of people in the country would not accept." (James McKinley, Jr, New York Times)

There's always the same answer. Don't worry. The $174 million lab is designed to withstand anything. It's built on concrete piles that go 120 feet into the ground, has back-up generators, and the BSL-4 portions of the building (the high security labs for handling the most dangerous bugs) are 30 feet above sea level:

"The entire island can wash away and this is still going to be here," Dr. James W. LeDuc, the deputy director of the laboratory, said. "With Hurricane Ike, we had no damage. The only evidence the hurricane occurred was water that was blown under one of the doors and a puddle in the lobby."

Hurricanes? No problem. Unless you are a researcher:

When hurricanes threaten the island, researchers will shut down their experiments at least 24 hours before landfall, decontaminate the labs and then move the stocks of deadly pathogens into freezers on upper floors, where they are kept at 70 below zero, Dr. Joan Nichols, an associate director of research, said.

Even if the emergency power system were to fail, the freezers can keep the samples of killer diseases dormant for about four days, she said.

So if you are in the middle of a complicated experiment and a hurricane might/might not be coming (path and severity still unsure), are you going to (a) hurry to get things done? (b) keep working as long as you can and then hurry to decontaminate everything? (c) gather up as much as you can and put it in a "safe place" until things (literally) blow over (i.e., not do what you are supposed to do because you don't want to lose all the work on the experiment)? (d) Say, "I guess I should just destroy everything according to the plan and start all over when the hurricane issue is resolved? Remember, some very smart people aren't very good at multiple choice tests.

Given the likelihood that this will happen periodically in Galveston, we repeat our original question: "Why would any sane person put a Level 4 biodefense lab in Galveston?" Maybe because the people getting the benefits aren't the same people bearing the costs:

The project enjoyed the strong support of three influential Texas Republicans: President Bush, a former Texas governor; Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison; and the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, whose district includes part of Galveston County. Officials at the National Institutes of Health, however, say the decision to put the lab here was based purely on the merits. It is to open Nov. 11.


The university's bid for the laboratory benefited from friends in Washington. Mr. DeLay, who resigned from Congress in 2006 [in disgarce!], pushed hard to bring the project to his district, as did Mrs. Hutchison, who sits on the Appropriations Committee.

On a visit to Galveston with Mr. Delay in 2005, Mr. Bush said: "This hospital is going to be the Texas center for bioshield research, to help us make sure that our country is well prepared as we engage in the war on terror. No better place, by the way, to do substantial research than right here at the University of Texas."

Galveston's medical school has long had a top-notch faculty in infectious diseases; the school's proposal beat out bids from the University of California, Davis, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Wadsworth Center in Albany, among others.

Dr. Rona Hirschberg, a senior program officer at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, an agency of the National Institutes of Health, said politics played no role in the decision to build the lab here. The threat of hurricanes was outweighed, she said, by the presence of some of the best virologists in the country, she said.

Yes, there are some excellent virologists there. But it surpasses credulity to believe the pushing of big shot Republican lawmakers had nothing to do with putting it in the path of periodic hurricanes requiring periodic stopping of all research for weeks at a time because they are so much better than everyone else. With all due respect to the excellent scientists in Galveston, that's a sick joke.

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(e) Get the absolute minimum done as quickly as possible and get the family out of harm's way.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 31 Oct 2008 #permalink

Let me just say, as someone who loves her hometown of Houston very much, and enjoyed many, many vacations on Galveston Beach...I'm glad I moved to Philly.

I swear, Texans get dumber and dumber, aspiring to emulate our great leader, I'm sure.