Research and Rescue Mission
Date: January 4, 2013
On the morning of Oct. 30, when she realized that water was rising in the sub-basement of the lab where she worked, Kathy Romans Judge headed out to purchase waders, gloves and headlamps. Storm water from city drains clogged by Hurricane Sandy was rising up through cracks in the floor of Johns Hopkins’ Koch Cancer Research Building. With the loss of power, decades of tissue samples stored in special freezers were in danger of being lost.
“It was absolutely eerie dark,” Judge says, recalling her first impression of the flood scene. “There was a good 3½ feet of water, with stuff like chairs and desks floating everywhere.”
Judge, clinical coordinator for colon cancer researcher Bert Vogelstein, joined an estimated 200 lab workers, faculty members, facility managers, students and Johns Hopkins Medicine leaders—including Paul Rothman, dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, and Rich Grossi, JHM chief financial officer—who rolled up their sleeves to rescue years of research from the storm-paralyzed facility.
By day’s end, thousands of rodents had found temporary lodgings in well-ventilated areas, while frozen blood, tissue and stool samples were relocated safely to other containers or protected by additional supplies of dry ice.
Once disaster was averted, stories about that Tuesday’s dramatic rescue efforts began to pour out. Participants describe an emergency response in which quick thinking, good judgment, elbow grease and community spirit came to the rescue of high-tech science.
Key to most stories are personal accounts of the human chains that formed spontaneously to pass research materials from the depths of the building up three flights of stairs. Connie Trimble, director of the Center for Cervical Dysplasia, spent five hours sloshing through the pitch-black basement and hip-high water to help rescue colleagues’ research.
“None of us had Disaster 101 training, but it was very interesting how the whole thing came together,” she recalls. “We would unplug a freezer and float it along through the water as close to the door as we could. Then we would flip it on its back and open the door toward the ceiling. When we opened the first freezer and discovered that the specimens were still frozen, we started cheering.
“Then we passed the racks of specimens out to people who were spread across the room and every two or three steps for each flight of stairs. We emptied about 35 freezers that way. Each time you handed off to a person, you would say the principal investigator’s name. Then that person would repeat it and so on—all the way up the stairwell.”
Standing at the summit of this evacuation route was Landon King, vice dean for research, and others who helped to manage the relocation of lab animals and bio specimens. Once this stage was over, he says, the next steps included obtaining temporary power for freezers on the building’s upper floors, keeping scientists up to date about the status of their materials, and making sure that all of the facility’s biosafety standards were met as equipment and systems were brought back online. One week later, researchers were once more working in the building.
The predominant memory remains the volunteering zeal of the bucket brigades. “Although in no way was Tuesday a good day, it was an extraordinary day because it encapsulated an awful lot of what makes Johns Hopkins such a special place,” King notes.
The rescue effort left many relieved and sore. Cindy Zahnow, director of the building’s animal facility, discovered that she could carry a maximum of four mouse cages, or two rat cages, at once. She figures she did that “hundreds of times.”
“Although there was never any flood water in the rooms where the mice were, they couldn’t get the water or ventilation they required because the power was off,” she says, adding that with the help of equipment and supplies brought in from other research locations, virtually all of the evacuated lab animals survived.
“It was an incredible bonding experience—not just for the folks in the Cancer Center, but with our colleagues across the university,” Zahnow reflects. “We completely prevented what could have been a disaster because everyone came together.”
An Outpouring of Aid
Roughly 200 volunteers helped out with the flooding emergency caused by Hurricane Sandy, and many continued to assist throughout the days that followed the storm. The following names, which represent a sample of the teams and departments who participated, give an idea of the scope of the rescue effort.
Bob Adams, director of laboratory animal medicine; Stephen Baylin, associate director of cancer research; Susanne Boeke, director of faculty research resources; Stephen Dahl, director of biological safety; Dan Ford, vice dean for clinical investigation; Ralph Hruban, pathology and pancreatic cancer research; John Hundt, administrator for surgery; Terry Langbaum, administrative officer of the Cancer Center; John Letos, facilities manager at the school of medicine; Pamela Paulk, vice president for human resources; Jeffrey Smith, manager for oncology support services, and Rose Wollett, administrator for the department of oncology. Also volunteering were numerous cancer researchers, physicians and staff members, as well as physicians and staff from departments such as surgery, dermatology and infectious diseases.