If the flood was bad, the clean-up was even worse, says chemist

Ill-prepared university exacerbated damage to a laboratory, a Hull academic tells Zoe Corbyn.

January 17, 2008

Watching years of research float away before your eyes may well be every academic's worst nightmare. For Stephen Haswell, however, this was not a bad dream but grim reality.

At the height of last summer's floods, Haswell, a professor of analytical chemistry at the University of Hull, arrived at work to find his basement laboratory full of water.

"Every chemical container you could imagine was floating around in the basement," Professor Haswell said. A pipe running underneath the chemistry building had overflowed, contaminating his workshop and chemical stores with eight feet of sewer water.

"We build small glass chips on which to do biological and chemical processing, and we lost all the tools, glass chips and computer data," he said.

This month, as his laboratory finally returned to normal, Professor Haswell criticised his university's handling of the clean-up operation and said he wanted to alert other researchers to the importance of disaster planning. "I want to pass on the message to other people about what we have learnt from the experience," he told Times Higher Education. "People should have a plan to minimise their risks."

The worst thing, he said, was not the flooding but what was lost in cleaning up the facility. During the clean-up, all his small equipment, materials and glass chips were thrown away. This caused a three-month halt to the work of 12 staff while the laboratory was rebuilt.

"It was a knee-jerk reaction," he said of decisions taken by university staff in dealing with the flooding's aftermath. "They refused to let us into the building and threw everything away on health and safety grounds. We could have cleaned up (many of the materials), but because there was no forward thinking or planning the university took the line that if it was contaminated it had to go," he said.

In desperation, Professor Haswell even tried to rescue items from a skip, only to find it locked, and he resorted to e-Bay to try to replace equipment.

The university, whose library was also flooded, is now developing a detailed flood management plan, which is due next month. But Professor Haswell thinks it is also an issue that individual researchers need to consider.

"We could have saved a lot if we had thought about how to safely deal with the contamination," he said.

He stressed the importance of storing back-up computer data outside the laboratory, of spreading the locations in which chemicals were stored and of being prepared for secondary effects of flooding - such as long power outages - that can ruin experiments.

Although Professor Haswell's insurance policy reimbursed him for much of the equipment, his computer data and stockpile of 40 glass chips - each of which takes three weeks to make - were lost.

Professor Haswell's experience raises wider questions about how prepared universities are to deal with disasters.

Alice Stuart-Menteth, UK flood manager at the company Risk Management Solutions, which models risk for the insurance industry, said it was vital that universities, like any large business, understood their exposure to hazards.

"Universities should have a solid understanding of their exposure to flood risk from all sources now and in the future, taking account of the potential impact of climate change. Those institutions that do not properly comprehend the risks may be vulnerable to large financial losses, particularly if they do not have adequate insurance, which could threaten their future existence," she said.

A University of Hull spokesman said the floods did minimal damage and praised the "proactive" way in which the university's engineers and maintenance staff cleared basements and turned off essential electrical services, "(reducing) consequential damage".

"Our experience of flood management at the University of Hull has enabled us to develop a 'best practice' approach, and we would be delighted to share our experience and prevention advice with other universities," said Reece Andrew, director of facilities.

"The university now has experience of devising technical solutions necessary to address the problem of flooding, to protect key installations and equipment, and it proposes to devise routes for excess water run-off to be channelled into temporary storage areas or swales," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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