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Shelter from the Storm

January 18, 2006

Fran Simon
Michael DeMocker

Tulanians during aftermath As Hurricane Katrina's path targeted the greater New Orleans area, the Tulane National Primate Research Center on the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain went into high gear to protect research projects, equipment, facilities, animals and human lives.

"We had a lot to take care of, with a population of more than 5,000 primates, 110,000 square feet of air-conditioned space and 910,000 square feet of outdoor corral structures, located on 500 heavily wooded acres of land," says Mike Aertker, associate director of administration and operations for the primate center.

The weekend before the hurricane hit, staff tested generators, topped off fuel tanks, tested the satellite phone system, stocked provisions and finally moved essential personnel on-site.

The information technology staff secured multiple back-ups of the animal records system with one copy stored out-of-state. Thirty-six hours before the storm was expected to pass over the primate center, animal workers safely moved more than 900 monkeys from outdoor enclosures that would not withstand the predicted Category 3 or 4 winds.

Key employees and family members hunkered down in the interior hallways of the facility to wait out the storm. The primate center sheltered as many as 65 people during and immediately after Katrina. Designated a Red Cross shelter, the primate center was able to obtain food and supplies, and staff members established a kitchen where at times 120 people were fed one hot meal a day, supplemented with Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) or other packaged meals.

Tulanians during aftermath After the hurricane passed, there was no electricity, telephone, cell phone or Internet service, and roads were impassable. As the weather improved, staff surveyed the damage, which primarily consisted of downed trees and remarkably little injury to buildings.

Facilities services crews began clearing the roads using chain saws, backhoes and tractors to remove debris so veterinary care staff could tend to the animals in the corrals. Over the next 24 hours, they also cleared roads to Louisiana Highway 190 and later the road to a nearby school where people were trapped.

The center had stored a week's worth of diesel fuel to run generators that consumed about 1,000 gallons per day initially, without powering chillers. Six days post-Katrina, the center added a 750-kVA generator on-site to power chillers, which raised the center's daily fuel consumption to approximately 2,100 gallons per day. As the available fuel began to dwindle, staff members traveled to Baton Rouge, La., to buy fuel. The New Iberia Primate Center, Southwest National Primate Research Center, Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others helped obtain fuel for the center.

Despite the persistent floodwaters, on Sept. 6, primate center staff made the first of numerous trips to the uptown and downtown campuses to rescue animals and research materials from the vivaria. Then, at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they went on a mission to evacuate primates from the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in downtown New Orleans.

Eighteen days after the hurricane passed, the power came back on at the primate center and normal operations resumed without having suffered any loss of animals, people, research samples or even a broken window, says Andrew Lackner, director of the primate center. He says he was touched by the dedication, hard work and ingenuity of the center staff and the support from members of the health sciences center police department who worked long hours before and after the storm to ensure the safety of the center and its employees. Strangers also were willing to help -- he fielded calls from other primate facilities and research institutions wanting to see what they could do.

"With this storm we have seen the worst of people in some of the things we've seen on TV, but we've also really seen the best of people, too," Lackner says.

Winter 2006

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000