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Is a new biodefense lab hardier than a hurricane?

Worried environmentalists charge that a new biodefense lab opening in Texas next month, smack in the middle of a hurricane zone, may not be able to withstand the strongest of storms.

The Galveston National Laboratory, set to open on Nov. 11, suffered only minor flooding in its lobby while under construction during September's Hurricane Ike; most of the other buildings on the island were more heavily damaged, The New York Times reports today.

But critics say Ike, a Category 2 storm with 100-mile- (161-kilometer-) per-hour winds, may not be the toughest test faced by the lab, where scientists will study deadly, contagious viruses including Ebola and Marburg — both hemorrhagic fevers that cause victims to bleed to death. In 1900, more than 8,000 people were killed in the Galveston area by a hurricane.

"A more powerful storm would pose an even greater threat of a biohazards release," Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, told the Times.

The $174-million lab was built to survive 140-mile- (225-kilometer-) per-hour gusts; it also has double doors to prevent pathogens from escaping and filters and sterilization systems to keep the air clean. The building's backup generators and high-security labs are 30 feet (nine meters) above sea level. Scientists have been instructed to shut down research, decontaminate labs and store pathogens at least 24 hours before any hurricane is forecast, lab officials told the newspaper.

Rona Hirschberg, a senior program officer at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, told the Times that Galveston has some of the best virologists in the country and that politics didn't influence the decision to build the lab in Texas, President Bush's home state. Bush and two other Republican Texas pols, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former Rep. Tom DeLay, pushed for the lab after the anthrax and 9/11 terrorist attacks to boost germ defense, according to the Times. Another new biodefense lab slated for Boston University Medical Center is stalled over safety and community concerns.

“You could put it out in the middle of nowhere and it would be a safe, secure facility,” said Hirschberg, a molecular biologist. “But the research wouldn’t get done” because there would be no one there with the expertise to do it.

(Aftermath of Hurricane Ike via Flickr/OneEighteen, http://www.flickr.com/photos/oneeighteen/)

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