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NIH Partnered in Rebuilding and Transforming NYU Research Facilities From Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit the U.S. East Coast, causing devastation across the New York metropolitan area (Figure 1). Extensive water damage and power outages occurred throughout NYU Langone Health’s Manhattan main campus, affecting multiple research and clinical facilities and necessitating emergency patient evacuations. The worst storm surge on the East Coast resulted in the loss of research and central equipment, as well as many of the research animals that had been housed at the Joan and Joel Smilow Research Center. Additionally, many valuable frozen research materials—including biological tissues and reagents—were destroyed following the sudden loss of power on the campus.

Figure 1. Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in October 2012 and led to extensive flooding and power outages in Manhattan, New York. Photo courtesy of donvictorio/Shutterstock.

For many NYU Langone researchers, the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy was devastating. At the time, Dr. Ann Marie Schmidt, Iven Young Professor of Endocrinology, was a new faculty member in NYU Langone’s Department of Medicine. Dr. Schmidt’s research focuses on the pathogenesis of diabetes, for which she uses genetically modified mouse models. She had spent the 2 years prior to the storm completing the extensive process of establishing new mouse colonies for her research. During the storm, these colonies were destroyed, and the team’s years of work were lost. In the wake of this destruction, however, Dr. Schmidt—alongside her fellow researchers at NYU Langone—remained steadfast and intent on recovering from this disaster. Recounted Dr. Robert I. Grossman, Dean of the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Chief Executive Officer of NYU Langone, “It was a very difficult time, but we focused on coming back better, stronger, and more resilient.”

During this challenging time, NIH helped facilitate NYU Langone’s recovery. In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Dr. Francis Collins, then–NIH Director, visited the NYU Langone campus to assess the damage to research infrastructure. He met with the institution’s leadership and researchers and toured the facilities, viewing firsthand the extensive water damage in the laboratories and vivarium. In a blog post, Dr. Collins recounted this experience. He described the extensive damage as “truly appalling,” noting that many of the spaces had been completely destroyed. He also emphasized NIH’s commitment to providing support along NYU Langone’s long road to recovery. Dr. Grossman reflected on the impact of Dr. Collins’ compassion and support during this time. “He sat down and engaged with us in a very important discussion. He said that he was going to be there for us and provide help,” Dr. Grossman stated. “That was incredibly encouraging to everybody here. The fact that he took time out of his schedule to come here was greatly appreciated.”

Figure 2. NYU Langone Health’s Science Building, located at 435 East 30th Street, New York, NY. Photo courtesy of NYU Langone.

True to Dr. Collins’ promise, NYU Langone received funds from NIH, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to support the recovery of critical facilities that were damaged by Superstorm Sandy. In 2014, NIH funded two awards (C06OD018416, C06OD018417) to support the construction of a new vivarium to house animals for biomedical research studies and new laboratory spaces for scientific research. These spaces were to be located in NYU Langone’s Science Building, a newly constructed, 365,000-square-foot modern facility that includes 10 floors with open, flexible spaces conducive to NYU Langone’s culture of collaborative research (Figure 2). Dr. Jeremy Paul, Associate Dean for Basic Science Research Operations and Regulatory Affairs, explained that the Science Building helps recruit top researchers, sustain hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants, and foster collaborations between researchers who previously were dispersed across campus. “This building transformed how we were able to think about a campus transformation and rationally organize our research enterprise in a way that we had not been able to for many years,” he emphasized.

The initial groundbreaking for the new Science Building was delayed as a result of Superstorm Sandy. NYU Langone leveraged lessons learned from the storm to improve the building’s design. With both the hurricane relief awards and the institutional funds supporting its construction, the Science Building was transformed into a standard-setting, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum–certified modern research facility. The new research facility includes several key design features that offer protection in the event of future natural disasters. The building is surrounded by a waterproof shear wall structure, and the windows facing the street are fitted with flood-resistant glazing.

The multi-phased construction project included an area to support new automation lines for processing laboratory specimens that keep with the industry standard. An elevator tower incorporates vertical pathways for new electrical and mechanical systems—located on the first floor—to enable critical technology and information technology services, and a new activated chilled beam system is in place to minimize energy costs. These critical infrastructure components were designed to stand above the 500-year flood elevation.

The new laboratories that were built with the disaster relief awards have movable desks and shelving on most of the floors, along with shared-use instruments and equipment, which helps foster collaboration. Both the vivarium and critical infrastructure are located above ground, which minimizes vulnerability to flooding. Additionally, the space is fitted with technology that enables remote monitoring of mechanical systems. For Dr. Schmidt and her colleagues, the new facilities were essential to restoring research activities after the disaster. Today, Dr. Schmidt’s new mouse colonies are housed in the recently constructed vivarium, and her team occupies laboratory space on a separate floor of the building (Figure 3). She credits NIH’s support in helping make this recovery possible. “With tremendous support from the NIH, the university came together to save our research programs,” Dr. Schmidt reflected. “Slowly, but surely, we recovered.”

Mr. Richard Cohen, Vice President of Facilities Operations at NYU Langone, explained that in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the health system sought opportunities to grow and improve. He stated, “We took advantage of a catastrophic situation and said, ‘Let’s not only fix it, but let’s take the opportunity to develop and implement a multilayered mitigation strategy to protect our facilities and the key components of our infrastructure, making us more resilient and able to withstand potential environmental threats in the future.’” In addition to improved infrastructure, NYU Langone has continued to refine its emergency response plans, building on lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy.

Figure 3. The laboratories in NYU Langone Health’s Science Building feature open, flexible spaces that help facilitate collaborations between researchers. Photo courtesy of NYU Langone.

Dr. Jennifer Pullium, Senior Director of the NYU Langone Division of Comparative Medicine, underscored the importance of quick decision making under pressure. Drawing on her experience as a licensed pilot, she led a team of staff in preparing for and responding to the storm. She emphasized the value of team engagement during emergency situations. “It’s great to have a written plan, but what you need are functional humans to carry out that plan,” Dr. Pullium stated. She now coordinates regular emergency-response simulations to empower team members to step up as leaders during responses to real-world disasters. She also coauthored a 2014 Nature commentary detailing her team’s approach to emergency planning.

Several years after the storm, NYU Langone faced a new challenge that put the team’s emergency planning efforts to critical use. In March 2020, COVID-19 patients with severe respiratory infections surged into the emergency rooms across New York City. Located near the Science Building, NYU Langone’s new 18-story hospital building—which includes an expanded state-of-the-art emergency room on the ground floor—soon became “ground zero” in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. The medical workers at NYU Langone quickly developed effective strategies that were summarized as the “five Ts”—tools, teams, triage, therapies, and throughput—to cope with the surge of critically ill patients. With careful coordination and collaboration among staff at NYU Langone, the strategies worked as planned, and the facility provided first-class health care during a time of crisis.

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic through Fiscal Year 2023, NYU was awarded more than 60 NIH grants related to COVID-19 research, totaled at about $50 million. Much of the research was directed toward treatment of COVID-19. For example, NYU Langone’s Vaccine Center pivoted quickly to conduct research on SARS-CoV-2 and played a leading role in the global race to develop a new vaccine. NYU Langone also operates the Clinical Science Core within the NIH Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) initiative, an integrated research network that brings together clinicians, scientists, caregivers, patients, and community members to understand, treat, and prevent long COVID. More than 20 clinical trials have been conducted or are in progress at NYU Langone to evaluate novel and effective therapies to treat the viral infection and improve patient management, including for patients with long COVID.

Reviewing the accomplishments since the major facility modernization using the hurricane disaster relief awards, the NYU Langone team underscored the critical importance of NIH’s grant support to NYU Langone to recover from the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. “It was more than support; it was a partnership,” emphasized Dr. Dafna Bar-Sagi, Executive Vice President and Vice Dean for Science and Chief Scientific Officer at NYU Langone, as well as the principal investigator of the two C06 awards. “We really worked together with NIH to understand what was possible.” After persisting through the crises of Superstorm Sandy and the COVID-19 pandemic, the team came back stronger and is prepared to face new challenges. Capitalizing on NIH’s investments in its vastly improved research facilities, NYU Langone continues to foster research that has led to new biomedical findings. The modernized and transformed infrastructure and contingency planning have helped the institution continue to thrive.

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