Hopkins scientists scrambled to save work after Sandy

The David Koch Cancer Research Building
The David Koch Cancer Research Building (Courtesy of Johns Hopkins, Baltimore Sun)

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University slogged through thigh-deep water to rescue tissue samples and evacuate lab animals when a flood crippled a cancer research building after Hurricane Sandy last month.

"It was really an extraordinary community effort," said Landon King, vice dean for research at the university's medical school, who worked to save precious samples stored in large freezers after the power went out. "It could have been an absolute disaster."

In the darkened basement of the Koch Cancer Research Building, water rose until it stood more than three feet in places. Teams of researchers and university staff, working by flashlight and lantern light, formed bucket brigades to pass samples out of the basement, up several flights of stairs and into temporary storage in other buildings before they defrosted.

Stormwater rose up through the floor, destroying computer servers and lapping against freezers on the building's lower level. Samples stored in freezers on upper floors also were at risk because the power was out and hundreds of lab animals had to be relocated due to the lack of ventilation.

Research projects could have been set back years if data was lost or samples — including blood, tissues and "nearly anything you can imagine," according to King — were contaminated.

People from across the university pitched in for the generally successful rescue effort.

"There were a lot of people who worked very fast for a long time," said Amy Mone, a spokeswoman for the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. She participated in the bucket brigade and said there was intense activity at the site for at least two days after the flooding.

Some samples were lost, school officials acknowledged, and researchers might discover problems with others years from now when they go to use them. Checking each item would be too time-consuming to be possible, King said.

"We know that we were able to retrieve nearly everything that was down in freezers in the lower levels and get it back into freezers," King said. "Whether any of that was somehow altered in that process — it's possible."

But the school said the efforts of the researchers were a success, and while the water knocked out the servers, the data was restored from backups.

"The outcome of this could have been very different and we were just extremely fortunate that it wasn't," King added.

Recataloging the samples will take a while, Mone said, "but no one is looking at this point at years of lost data."

A few New York hospitals had to evacuate patients, not just samples, after the storm, but in Maryland where its impact was weaker, hospitals generally stayed open. Johns Hopkins closed some outpatient services in the day after the storm.

The research building reopened a week after the flood and researchers returned to work to establish what they might have lost.

Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said the water seeped into the basement through cracks around columns. The sheer volume of water dumped by Sandy contributed to the flooding, he added, noting that it is not uncommon for basements to flood during storms.

The 267,000-square-foot building on Johns Hopkins' East Baltimore campus is home to five floors of laboratories and 10 stories of office space. It was completed in 2006, and the university received a $20 million donation from billionaire industrialist David H. Koch to support its operation.

The Kimmel center, of which the Koch building is a part, is known for cutting-edge cancer research and is home to Carol Greider, who won the 2009 Nobel prize for medicine. She is not based in the building that flooded and said in an email that her research has not been affected.

Baltimore's aging pipes have caused numerous problems throughout city in recent weeks. A burst main at North Charles Street and North Avenue triggered evacuations as gushing water bucked pavement and left the road closed for days. Another pipe break at East Madison Street near Guilford Avenue affected Mercy Medical Center, but did not cause problems with patient care.


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