Destruction from Hurricane Harvey in the Meyerland area of Houston, Texas. (Credit: Courtesy of Ramit Plushnick-Masti, HFSC)

The Houston Forensic Science Center braced for Hurricane Harvey two weeks ago. Two hundred staff members pitched in, some lugging 500 pounds of dry ice in case of long-term loss of power and refrigeration, others unwinding 80,000 square feet of plastic sheeting to cover vital equipment and evidence. Windows were bolstered for leaks. Some vital evidence was hauled over to the Houston Police Department’s property room, and other materials were moved away from windows.

The agency escaped with no lost evidence, all staff members safe, instruments undamaged and the communications system intact throughout the entire historic storm. Controlled substances were brought back online yesterday, and today the toxicology and biology work resumed, according to HFSC senior leadership.

But they were not entirely unscathed. Overall, operations were set back between 10 days and two weeks, according to senior leadership. With a staggering 50 inches of rain, some water found its way into the HFSC rooms, even those in high-rise buildings. And the Houston experience with Harvey may help forensic professionals who find themselves in the crosshairs of future disasters—first and foremost those in the path of Hurricane Irma this weekend.

“Don’t underestimate where water can go,” said Peter Stout, the director of the HFSC. “However much you estimate, just add more.”

Direct floodwaters were never the problem in the HFSC facilities. Although Houston neighborhoods adjacent to bayous and waterways were inundated, the agency’s properties extend through 11 different floors in four buildings in the downtown, according to Stout and Ramit Plushnick-Masti, the HFSC’s director of communications, who spoke to Forensic Magazine today.

The guiding priorities in Houston’s Harvey preparation: first, the people; then, the evidence; and finally, the equipment.

“After you protect your people, protect the evidence. Equipment can be replaced,” said Plushnick-Masti.

The HFSC was closed entirely from Aug. 26, the peak of the storm, until Sept. 5. But there were critical functions like response to crime scenes—and they kept moving.

A degree of improvisation powered the fundamental operations.

The HR department did payroll early, so that employees wouldn’t go without expected funds during the storm.

The crime scene unit began working 12-hour shifts as the storm dumped on the city. Though there was only one serious crime scene response during the height of the hurricane, they were also spending the time fixing leaks and doing maintenance on the fly. But there were leaks even on floors in one of the high-rises above the 20th floor, which led to water traveling through an air duct into the middle of one office. (The main facilities are located in buildings that date from the mid-20th century, and are extremely old, by Houston standards, they said.)

(Credit: Courtesy of Ramit Plushnick-Masti)

The 21 crime scene workers slept in what hotel rooms could be secured in the downtown area, or in makeshift locations around the offices. No one could get in, or out, for days. The downtown of the fourth-largest city in the U.S. had essentially become an island. So the CSIs on-hand kept working on and off, until the waters receded.

“Really, the crime scene unit was a huge standout for us,” Stout said. “They were here 24 hours during the storm, checking through the facility. If we didn’t have people here, there would have been more impact.”

The on-the-fly improvisation was made possible through the intact communications system. A CSI who was working a shift was able to reunite with her husband and the family dog, because of available cell service and relayed messages. Plushnick-Masti was sitting on her kitchen counter coordinating with the rest of the leadership even as floodwaters rose through her house. (She and her family eventually evacuated—a story she told in a piece published by The Associated Press).

When the rains left, the damage was surveyed—and the situation was good.

Some records were damaged, but none were rendered unusable. No equipment was damaged, no evidence was compromised, Stout explained. The vehicle evidence bay (VEB) sustained some flood damage—but it only resulted in some removed drywall and minor reconstruction, they added. The HFS was planning on launching a whole new laboratory information management system in November. But that will now have to wait until March, Stout explained. Some bottlenecks remain, due to the city’s IT infrastructure being down.

“You’re dependent on these other services that extend out beyond you,” said Stout.

“That’s the casualty you don’t ever see until after a storm—those partnerships and collaborations and how people and organizations are dependent on one another,” added Plushnick-Masti. “If you look at Houston, the refineries are now up and running, but they can’t ship out the gasoline—because the railroad tracks are damaged.”

But still a degree of normalcy has returned this week. Ceiling tiles that had fallen or been damaged were cleared out of the way. The CSI Academy took their tests as planned on Tuesday—and today the graduation is being held.

“We fared pretty well on this,” said Stout. “By and large, we’re back to normal operations.”

Overall, having backup plans and flexibility is key during chaos, they concluded.

And approximately 1,000 miles to the east, their forensic counterparts in Florida continue preparations. Gina Carter, a spokeswoman for the Broward County Sheriff's Office, told Forensic Magazine that the agency had already prepared for the worst. 

"Our Crime Lab was closed down at close of business on Wednesday," Carter said. "All sensitive electronics/instruments were covered in plastic and all evidence was secured in our vault.  Crime Scene (same building) will be manned 24/7 and assessing lab area routinely. The building has generators that activate should there be a loss of power."