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Harvey repairs go on at U-Texas institute in Port Aransas

September 28, 2018

PORT ARANSAS, Texas (AP) — The iconic Tarpon statue cast a watchful eye over the Marine Science Institute on a recent Tuesday, standing guard just as it did in August 2017 when Hurricane Harvey steamrolled the 72-acre Port Aransas campus.

The Houston Chronicle reports looking at that statue, seemingly untouched by time or weather, it might be easy to think the University of Texas at Austin institute fared well during Harvey.

But a sign taped to the door of the building behind it reads: “Sorry. Temporarily closed.”

The closure, however, has been anything but.

It’s been more than a year since Harvey’s 130 mph winds ripped into the institute’s buildings, sent gravel smashing through windows and destroyed three football fields’ worth of roofing. UT-Austin in late September celebrated a major milestone: 45 percent of the campus’ 78 buildings are now up-and-running.

The students have returned to campus after months of working out of makeshift labs generously provided by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The thousands of research fish that died from lack of oxygen have been restocked. And the school’s Estuarine Research Center now smells of lemon and pine rather than mold and dead fish as it did in the days and months after the hurricane.

The center was renovated shortly before Harvey to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. But it failed miserably, flooding the offices and laboratories housed here. The build has now been reopened after receiving a fresh coat of paint, new flooring and, of course, a stronger roof — the first building to be fully restored on this campus.

“When the initial damage first was being reported, people were asking ‘is it worth rebuilding? Is it going to be reopened?’” said UT president Greg Fenves at a news conference. “But we’re committed to recovering, committed to rebuilding and committed to reopening.”

“The mission of MSI is just too important,” he continued.

But there’s still much to be done.

The school’s $5 million research pier, for example, still sits broken and crumbling in the Port Aransas Ship Channel, a causality not of the storm, but of a drilling rig that broke free in the days after.

Some buildings still lack roofs, while others are ghost towns: equipment and furniture is tarped and forgotten, dusty hallways are dimly lit, and custodians are sweeping a constant stream of wood and drywall from the grounds.

All told, officials believe it will cost $45 million to rebuild the entire campus, which they anticipate will be complete by the end of 2019.

Some of the researchers and students have moved their work spaces three, four, even five times. They do their work in cramped laboratories alongside multiple researchers. They’ve lost millions of dollars-worth of equipment — much of it still not replaced — and research projects are now months behind schedule.

Lauren Yeager, an assistant professor at the institute who focuses on seagrass, said she’s moved so many times she’s simply stopped unpacking. A laptop and computer monitor are the lone items on her desk, which is housed in her most recent temporary office: a soundproof recording studio in the school’s Estuarine Research Center.

Sarah Douglas, a doctoral student, operates out of a lab she shares with multiple other researchers. The room is so crowded, she has to turn sideways to get to her equipment, which she uses to test water in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

But it’s a better space than the basement lab she sometimes works in, which has no windows and glaring florescent lighting like something out of an ’80s movie.

Lee Fuiman, associate director of the institute’s Fisheries and Mariculture Laboratory, hasn’t been displaced by the storm and its ensuing rebuild. But he, his laptop and documents related to his fish egg studies recently had to relocate to a conference room.

The incessant, ear-splitting bangs — signaling the repair of the laboratory’s roof — were hovering over his office that day, forcing him to shout at the top of his lungs to be heard.

It’s good that it’s being done, he said. But it’s not great for his productivity.

Both Yeager and Douglas hope to have their permanent work spaces ready in November. And Sally Palmer, institute spokeswoman, said the institute will reopen to the public in the spring.

Institute officials already have spent tens of millions of dollars on the renovation, rebuilding with more resilient materials including sealed concrete instead of tile, and mobile lab benches instead of stationary ones. They also are replacing the roofs in such a way that small gravel won’t fly off during the next storm and destroy windows.

Additionally, the extreme makeover has allowed the institute to become more energy efficient, by using LED lights and better HVAC systems, for example.

“The Marine Science campus will be rebuilt for the future: stronger and smarter,” said institute Director Robert Dickey. “We look forward to providing facilities that will support our hardworking faculty and students for generations to come.”

It also has allowed them to update their disaster response plan. Though Palmer said their evacuation plan worked well — preventing a secondary disaster by storing chemicals properly — officials didn’t really have a plan for recovery.

They do now.

The institute has improved its communication plan in the event of the storm and have a list of housing resources that students can call if their homes are destroyed, Dickey said. There also is a list of peer institutes, such as Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, that can take on students and faculty in the event of a campus shut down, he added

“We were able to figure it out on the fly” after Harvey, Palmer said. “But we have developed a plan now: what do we do afterwards? How do we handle moving the faculty? Where do we put the students?”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

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