As NYU officials tally the damage, they will inevitably have to address the issue of whether the disaster could have been avoided or minimized. “Putting animals (or electrical control equipment) in a basement within a stone’s throw from a tidal river is not a wise idea,” immunologist Alan Frey wrote in an e-mail to Nature after losing all of his mice, which were housed at the Smilow. At the Texas Medical Center in Houston in 2001, Tropical Storm Allison destroyed millions of dollars of equipment and killed thousands of lab animals ranging from mice to monkeys. In the aftermath, engineers constructed flood gates and moved animal facilities and crucial components of the power system out of the basement.
The Smilow, which opened in 2006, can withstand a storm surge of about 3.7 meters — 20% higher than that expected from a once-per-century flood, according to the NYU. Now that Sandy has overtopped those defenses, officials say that they will be assessing what they can do differently in the future.
Bartelle, whose work was spared by the disaster, says that he won’t forget the efforts made that night to get patients out of harm’s way — especially by students and researchers at the Smilow who knew they were facing disastrous losses to their work. “Why does the tragedy happen to the person right next to you? They don’t deserve it any more than you do,” he says. “It’s going to be difficult moving forward for everybody.”