In June of 2001, Tropical Storm Allison left 10 million gallons of floodwater in the basement and lower floors of the UT Medical School. All of the school's laboratory animals were killed. Thousands of research documents were lost. The total losses were estimated at $165 million. Dr. James Willerson had been president of the UT Health Science Center for just three months when the storm hit.
"We were losing $13 million a year. We'd built nothing new in 25 years. And the most money we'd raised was $30 million. I got a call in the early morning hours that our medical school had been badly damaged by Allison. And Nancy, my wife, and I came over and she looked at it and started to cry, I wanted to. Because it was clear the building was very severely damaged."
Willerson says many people questioned whether it was even worth it to rebuild. The school was in a slump and to some it seemed impossible to overcome the huge damage from Allison. Six years later, UT Regent Scott Caven is welcoming guests into a 200,000 square foot, $80.5 million facility.
"The new building stands on the site of the Freeman building, dedicated in 1972 by then U.S. Ambassador George H.W. Bush. The 55,000 sq. ft. Freeman building considered spacious at the time, was approximately one quarter the size of this new facility."
Now that the new med school building is open, researchers, students and labs that have been scattered across the medical center will be housed under one roof. And it's a high-tech, state of the art roof. UT Health Science Center Executive Vice President for Research Dr. Peter Davies says no one wished for a tragedy like Tropical Storm Allison, but the damage from the storm did greatly accelerate the school's expansion and growth.
"The new laboratories in this building are what are called open laboratories -- they're large areas where many researchers can work together in the same environment. That's an opportunity we didn't have before. So creating new, what we call sometimes team science approaches to particularly exciting or challenging problems, this building allows us to do."
And since more than 4,000 animals died during Tropical Storm Allison, the expansion also includes a new vivarium for the lab animals, located on the top floors of the building. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.