UT-Austin's Marine Science Institute 45 percent rebuilt after Hurricane Harvey

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PORT ARANSAS — The iconic Tarpon statue cast a watchful eye over the Marine Science Institute on Tuesday, standing guard just as it did in August 2017 when Hurricane Harvey steamrolled the 72-acre campus here.

Looking at that statue, seemingly untouched by time or weather, you’d almost think the University of Texas-Austin institute had faired well during Harvey.

But shield your eyes from the blinding sun and you’ll catch a glimpse of a sign taped hastily to the door of the building behind it: “Sorry,” it reads, “Temporarily closed.”

The closure, however, has been anything but.

It’s been more than a year since Harvey’s 130 mph winds ripped into the institute’s buildings, sent gravel smashing through windows and destroyed three football fields’ worth of roofing. But on Tuesday, UT-Austin celebrated a major milestone: 45 percent of the campus’ 78 buildings are now up-and-running.

They’re especially excited about reopening the Estuarine Research Center, renovated shortly before Harvey to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. It failed miserably, flooding the offices and laboratories housed there.

The students have returned to campus after months of working out of makeshift labs generously provided by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The thousands of research fish that died from lack of oxygen have been restocked. And the school’s Estuarine Research Center now smells of lemon and pine rather than mold and dead fish as it did in the days and months after the hurricane.

The center was renovated shortly before Harvey to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. But it failed miserably, flooding the offices and laboratories housed here. The build has now been reopened after receiving a fresh coat of paint, new flooring and, of course, a stronger roof – the first building to be fully restored on this campus.

“When the initial damage first was being reported, people were asking ‘is it worth rebuilding? Is it going to be reopened?’” said UT president Greg Fenves at a news conference Tuesday. “But we’re committed to recovering, committed to rebuilding and committed to reopening.”

“The mission of MSI is just too important,” he continued.

But there’s still so much to be done.

The school’s $5 million research pier, for example, still sits broken and crumbling in the Port Aransas Ship Channel, a causality not of the storm, but of a drilling that broke free in the days after. Some buildings still lack roofs, while others are ghost towns: equipment and furniture is tarped and forgotten, dusty hallways are dimly lit and custodians are sweeping a constant stream of wood, drywall and chalkboard erasures of the ground.

Some of the researchers and students have moved their work spaces three, four, even five times. Operating in cramped laboratory alongside multiple researchers. They’ve lost millions of dollars-worth of equipment and much of it still has not been replaced, setting research project’s months behind schedule.

Lauren Yeager, an assistant professor at the institute who focuses on seagrass, has moved so many times she’s simply stopped unpacking. A laptop and computer monitor are the lone items on her desk, which is housed in her most recent temporary office: a soundproof recording studio in the school’s Estuarine Research Center.

Sarah Douglas, a doctoral student, operates out of a lab she shares with multiple other researchers. The room is so cramped, she has to turn sideways to get to her equipment, which she uses to test water in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

But it’s a better space than the basement lab she sometimes works in, which has no windows and glaring florescent lighting like something out of an eighties movie.

Lee Fuiman, associate director of the institute’s Fisheries and Mariculture Laboratory, hasn’t been displaced by the storm and its ensuing rebuild. But on Tuesday, he, his laptop and documents related to his fish egg studies had to relocate to a conference room.

The incessant, ear-splitting bangs — signaling the repair of the laboratory’s roof — were hovering over his office that day, forcing him to shout at the top of his lungs to be heard.

It’s good that it’s being done, he said. But it’s not great for his productivity.

Both Yeager and Douglas hope to have their permanent work spaces ready in November. And Sally Palmer, institute spokeswoman, said the institute will reopen to the public in the spring.

Institute officials have spent tens of millions of dollars already on the renovation, rebuilding with more resilient materials including sealed concreate instead of tile and mobile lab benches instead of stationary ones. They also are replacing the roofs in such a way that small gravel won’t fly off during the next storm and destroy windows.

Additionally, the extreme makeover has allowed the institute to become more energy efficient, by using LED lights and better HVAC systems, for example.

“The Marine Science campus will be rebuilt for the future: stronger and smarter,” said institute Director Robert Dickey. “We look forward to providing facilities that will support our hardworking faculty and students for generations to come.”

It also has allowed them to update their disaster response plan. Though Palmer said their evacuation plan worked well — preventing a secondary disaster by storing chemicals properly — officials didn’t really have a plan for recovery.

They do now.

“We were able to figure it out on the fly” after Harvey, Palmer said. “But we have developed a plan now: what do we do afterwards? How do we handle moving the faculty? Where do we put the students?”

Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at alex.stuckey@chron.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.