Tornado-tossed lab getting back on its feet

In Beltsville, rebuilding includes lost research at U.S. agricultural center

April 12, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Ever since Sept. 24, it's been 5:27 p.m. at the federal government's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.

That's when a tornado stopped the clock on the signature tower in the middle of the campus, caused nearly $13 million in damage to the 6,600-acre U.S. Department of Agriculture facility and destroyed countless years of important research.

Now, after a winter of rebuilding facilities, reshuffling plants and conducting research in damaged greenhouses, the center - the world's largest for agricultural research - is trying to move on.

Officials believe the $13 million cleanup and repair, funded by the federal government, will be completed within two years. But research has been slowed for many of the center's nearly 400 scientists, who tackle projects such as developing automated poultry inspection lines, extending the shelf life of berries and controlling pests that attack coffee. Some say their work has been set back three years.

"For a while, it kind of felt like Bosnia ... but we're on our way back to normal," Phyllis E. Johnson, director of the center, says as she walks past the clock tower, which is being repaired.

Reminders of the tornado - which also caused more than $30 million in damage to state-owned land and killed two University of Maryland, College Park students - are everywhere at the Beltsville center.

Many of the buildings' windows are still missing. Lawns have holes where massive, 80-year-old oaks were uprooted. And when you walk across campus, you can still hear high-pitched screeches as you step on glass shards.

No Beltsville scientists or employees were hurt during the tornado, an amazing fact considering that glass shards and roof shingles were sent flying by 200-mph winds. But because the tornado arrived late in the day, relatively few people were on campus.

"Can you imagine if someone was caught in here?" Cathleen Hapeman asks, running her hand over a laboratory wall pockmarked from flying glass. "They'd be dead."

Although Hapeman and other scientists avoided injuries, many lost valuable research specimens. Many of the buildings lost power, and some backup generators were not turned on because they might have reacted with spilled chemicals, starting a fire.

That meant specimens kept in coolers were in danger of spoiling. Although the facility did locate a van with a portable freezer, space was extremely limited. Hapeman, who studies runoff, had amassed thousands of cases of water, air and soil samples from across the United States, but could save only about 100 cases of the samples collected over the past three years.

Hapeman has already analyzed many of the samples to check pollution levels in different types of fields, but she's nervous about her lack of materials, especially if she needs them for future studies. "What if I overlooked something, what if I have to go back and analyze them again? It can't be done."

As much as Hapeman frets about her loss, she takes comfort that she doesn't do research in greenhouses, where some of the worst damage was sustained. "Now those guys I feel sorry for," she says.

Autar K. Mattoo is one. He has been working for 10 years to develop tomatoes that have more cancer-fighting lycopene. When the tornado struck, it tore apart the greenhouse that held his plants, destroying all but three or four.

The greenhouses suddenly resembled icy snowdrifts more than protective houses. "The broken glass was literally up to your knee," Johnson recalls. Even now, there are piles of glass shards in many corners and underneath tables.

In the days after the tornado, scientists such as Mattoo scrambled around the greenhouses in hardhats, trying to save the few surviving plants. To make matters worse, Mattoo lost thousands of frozen tomatoes that he had not fully analyzed because his freezers lost power and the fruit turned to mush.

Normally, Mattoo is a jovial man who will urge visitors to inspect his tomatoes - "See how firm they are?" he proudly asks a visitor - but the memory of his ruined tomatoes causes his face to fall temporarily.

"It was shocking," he says. "But, what could you do? You could go to the bar or you could say, `Let's get going.'"

Many Beltsville greenhouses are still unusable and some will be demolished this spring. Because of the lack of work areas, many scientists have doubled up in available greenhouse space.

Even in the cramped conditions, Mattoo managed to re-grow many of his plants from seed over the winter. Still, his optimism can't replace the lost tomatoes. Mattoo estimates that he lost nearly three years' worth of research.

"This used to be full," he says, gesturing around a repaired greenhouse only half full of plants. "Maybe I'll be back to where I started in a year and half."

As repairs continue, officials at the center say they have learned much from the tornado. The center has updated telephone lists so employees can be contacted quickly; steps have been taken to put sensitive biological experiments in more secure areas; and more portable freezers are available in case specimens have to be moved quickly.

And though many badly damaged greenhouses will have to be razed, officials plan to replace some of the glass greenhouses with cheaper, plastic models that could save the center several million dollars.

"Nobody thought we'd ever have a tornado. ... It really opened our eyes to where the holes in our [contingency] plans were," says Harry D. Danforth, technology transfer coordinator. "Next time, we'll be better prepared."

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