One of the state’s premier scientific institutions, and one which is a gateway to study of the state’s coastal environment, faces the prospect of limping through its 50th anniversary year as it struggles to recover from Hurricane Sally.
Five months ago, the storm’s eyewall brushed past Dauphin Island, wreaking havoc on the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s campus. Roofing was torn off, one of the lab’s smaller boats was sunk and “the more we walked, the more water we found in buildings,” Executive Director John Valentine said in the days after the storm. The loss of office and residential space meant ongoing research had come to a screeching halt.
Valentine said Monday that while temporary solutions have been found for some challenges, big questions remain unanswered.
“I would start out by saying what a complicated process this is,” he said. “Because you’re balancing the insurance and the FEMA claim, trying to make sure you’re doing the right thing.”
The core problem is that while there’s coverage, the Sea Lab doesn’t just need to rebuild. What it really needs to do is to take buildings constructed in the 1950s and ’60s and rebuild them to current codes. It appears the insurance coverage isn’t sufficient to do that.
“What we’re going to end up doing is putting new Band-Aids on old Band-Aids,” said Valentine.
Valentine said there’s been frustration on the FEMA side too. The agency’s programs stress the importance of pre-mitigation, or building things so that they can withstand damage. he said. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into funding. “When it comes to hurricanes, it’s not clear that’s even possible,” Valentine said. “We took a shot at trying to do this. We proposed a Cat 5 building, but it got shot down as capital improvement.”
That building probably would have cost $5 million to $6 million, he said, and that level of relief seems to be out of reach.
Valentine said he’s aware that the storm did extensive damage in Baldwin County and that “we’re just one piece of a great big messy puzzle.” There has been some progress and some good news, however.
“What we’ve been able to do is get roofs on two of the three damaged buildings,” Valentine said. “But we’ve done no interior repairs. And in terms of the graduate dormitory space, we’re going to have to gut that.”
“We’re pushing forward on our research program,” Valentine said. “One of the things that helped us is that [University of South Alabama President] Tony Waldrop came to our rescue and provided some office and lab space up on the South Alabama campus.”
That’s not quite the same as having scientists living and working right on the edge of the waters they’re studying, he said, but it preserves the scientific effort.
Sea Lab officials also are working on the design of a new main research vessel. Gov. Kay Ivey announced $3.25 million in funding back in August. A modern, efficient vessel will aid the lab’s work, Valentine said, and when it hits the water — possibly in 2022 — the current multipurpose vessel will be dedicated to education.
In the meantime, he said, the challenge for Sea Lab leaders and staff is that “We’re going to have to figure out how we can creatively restore the programs that are priorities. We may have to let some other things get the bare minimum.”
The COVID-19 pandemic remains a problem. In a normal year, the Sea Lab could expect to welcome around 10,000 K-12 students. Those numbers were down 80% last year.
Meanwhile it would be hosting undergraduate students from colleges and universities all over the state, as well as three to four dozen graduate students conducting research.
The way forward involves “compartmentalizing” the various challenges. The Sea Lab’s estuarium is open to the public, so the return of the younger students hinges mainly on the resolution of the pandemic. College undergraduates may be able to take advantage of online programs. Graduate students will have to work from other locations until their residential facilities are restored, and it could be a year or more before that happens.
“The irony of this is, the coastal zone is where 60% of all Americans are choosing to live now,” he said. “Yet getting coastal resiliency as a priority anywhere in Washington or anywhere else, really it’s falling behind.”
“We’ll limp through this,” Valentine said. But he can’t shake another worry: Sally was just a Category 2 storm. There’s no reason to think it’ll be the last storm the Sea Lab suffers, or the strongest. “We may be at it again this summer,” he said.