As Hurricane Ian moved toward the west coast of Florida, institutions and researchers in its path have scrambled to prepare—and in many cases, evacuate—before its projected landfall on Wednesday evening.
In anticipation of the approaching storm, Governor Ron DeSantis declared on Saturday that the entire state of Florida was under a state of emergency, reports the Associated Press. This morning, Hurricane Ian reached the western side of Cuba, moving north at 12 mph, when it registered as a Category 3 with sustained winds of 125 mph, reports The Orlando Sentinel. The storm is expected to strengthen to a Category 4 with wind gusts up to 165 mph by tomorrow (September 28), when it will slow its advance and turn toward Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Flooding could be severe in some parts of Florida where storm surges of up to 12 feet are possible, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Areas out of the storm’s direct path are also at risk for severe weather. Tornadoes could form in the keys and in southern and central Florida, according to the NHC.
Multiple Florida universities and research institutes are altering operation in preparation for the storm. Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, located in Sarasota on the Gulf Coast, announced yesterday evening that it has temporarily closed its aquarium due to Ian. North of Sarasota, the University of Tampa has canceled all classes and campus events through the weekend and is evacuating students. Further to the east, Florida Tech and the University of Central Florida have also canceled classes, as has the University of Florida Gainesville in the panhandle.
For some, monitoring and preparing for the hurricanes is part of an annual cycle. “Having lived in Florida for quite a few years, this is something we pay attention to all the time,” says Joe Kissil, a cancer researcher and chair of the Department of Molecular Oncology at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. “This is not the first rodeo.”
Kissil says that his primary concern is for the safety and well being of the people who work at the center, recognizing they have to juggle protecting their homes and families as well as their research. However, keeping track of Ian’s progress spurred the center to begin preparing days ago. “It’s all about planning and not starting new experiments, wrapping up ongoing experiments, and then making sure the lab is secure,” he says.
Kissil says Moffitt has emergency teams in place that stay in safe and protected areas of their center to monitor the facility and deal with problems that may arise during the storm. The primary concerns are power, freezer systems, and experimental animals. If a breaker trips, for example, emergency personnel will work to bring the affected systems back online.
Power loss is a particular concern for rare samples that are kept in freezers or cooled in liquid nitrogen systems, Kissil says: “They’re irreplaceable, basically.” To protect them, sensors transmit storage status to the principal investigator or whoever is responsible for that experiment. If a sensor goes off, the investigator can contact the emergency team on site if the equipment is critical. “In Florida, all our buildings have emergency backup generators,” Kissil says. So if the power does go out, generators will automatically kick on. Of course, flooding is also a possibility, he says.
Another concern is potentially losing strains of mice that often take years to cultivate. “If they are lost, that’s it. You lose that strain if it’s not backed up,” which is what happened at New York University as a result of Hurricane Sandy, Kissil says.
Personnel have verified that equipment is hooked up to backup power, checked liquid nitrogen cooling systems, and covered sensitive equipment.
Nancy Smith, a marine ecologist at Eckerd College in Tampa Bay, echoes the sentiment that researchers in Florida are all too familiar with hurricane season. “We are very much keenly attuned to tropical storms and are always constantly watching weather forecasts.”
In fact, every August, Eckerd faculty members have to submit to their department chairs short-term and long-term plans explaining how students’ education will continue during storms or, if a storm is severe enough, in their aftermath, Smith says.
Smith’s laboratory is in a building that borders the ocean. “We are directly on the water, where I can see the seawall of Tampa Bay.” Because high storm surges are expected, facility personnel had to dismantle some equipment to take it into storage, including an outdoor classroom where Smith teaches her marine science students.
Inside her lab, she has tanks full of hundreds of marine animals, including sea urchins, sea stars, and crabs, that she uses primarily for teaching purposes. She prepared the tanks with fresh seawater and food that she hopes will keep the animals fed for the next few days while she’s out, but the aeration system is another story. “Unfortunately, that system is not on a backup generator,” Smith says. “And I think the animals will do okay for like a day or two without power. But if it’s substantial, then I expect some mortality,” which has happened in previous storms.
Last Thursday (September 22), she alerted her students to the possibility that the then- tropical storm would escalate. By Sunday, Smith says that the college’s emergency notification system texted students and faculty that campus would close on Monday. Smith left campus last night and returned home, where she is not required to evacuate. As of Tuesday afternoon, she is trying to record as many virtual lectures as possible for her students before she loses power.