Reprinted with permission from SFARI.org, an editorially independent division of the Simons Foundation. (Find original story here.)
The lab’s staff is back at work, studying — among other things — the role of certain neurons in disorders such as autism. With gleaming floors under glowing lights, the space resembles nothing of the dark, dank disaster zone it was back then.
“It’s really hard to remember how bad it was,” says Fishell, director of the Smilow Neuroscience Program at New York University (NYU). Until, that is, he begins to recall the damage.
On 29 October 2012, ‘superstorm’ Sandy surged through the east coast of the U.S., with water levels in New York Bay reaching 13.88 feet — 2.68 feet higher than the nearly 200-year-old previous record.
At NYU’s Langone Medical Center, which sits right next to the East River, the staff successfully evacuated 322 patients, including 20 babies from the neonatal intensive care unit. But mice and machines did not fare as well.
Water poured into the basement, destroying the mouse facility and the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners stored there. Most of the 7,500 mice, including about 2,500 of Fishell’s, died. The fuel pumps for the backup generators were submerged and leaking, pitching the buildings into darkness and infusing the air with noxious diesel fumes.
The recovery since then has been unceasing, but uneven.
Fishell’s lab is shinier than some others. At Jane Skok’s lab elsewhere in the medical center, the ‘equipment room’ still holds ladders, paint buckets and power cables. The ceiling outside her lab has been lowered several feet to run visible pipes, creating what she calls an “Alice in Wonderland situation.” And just the day before this reporter’s visit, a sudden problem with the water tower brought the cold room's temperature up to a balmy 40 degrees Celsius.
“This is a kind of construction site,” Skok says.
Weathering the crisis:
By all accounts, NYU has managed the crisis admirably. As soon as they could get into the center, staff worked round the clock, hauling truckloads of dry ice and liquid nitrogen up multiple flights of stairs to try and salvage defrosting enzymes and degrading samples. They broke through the ceiling of the basement to rescue about 600 cages of mice — including 53 of Fishell’s — in the topmost racks that had survived the damage. They relocated 90 labs, and as many samples as they could, to buildings that had better weathered the damage.
By January, most labs, and any critical equipment, had homes elsewhere. By August, many of them were back. (In Skok’s case, for example, the staff helped move a $500,000 confocal microscope, which needs a special room at a specific temperature, to a biology building in the downtown campus — and then back again to the medical center in August.) “They went out of their way to accommodate our needs,” Skok says.
Still, there was only so much they could do.
Before the storm, Skok’s lab stored mice in the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, part of the medical center complex. Much of Skirball was spared, but the mice were in the dark, and without heat, for several days. This sort of stress can affect the expression of genes, a central focus of Skok’s work.