After Harvey, one year later: Seeing Harvey as an opportunity

Researchers learn from Hurricane Harvey

PORT ARANSAS – While Hurricane Harvey left behind a massive amount of destruction, there were also some positive qualities researchers were able to analyze.

One facility saw both aspects of Harvey.

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The Marine Science Institute is part of the University of Texas of Austin, but is stationed in Port Aransas. The institute took a direct hit from Harvey and is still undergoing repairs.

The old roof was made of pebbles, which became much like bullets as they were launched at windows during the storm. A pier was snapped in half, labs were flooded, samples were lost and scientific instruments were damaged.

Sally Palmer, who works at the institute, said, "We had one piece of equipment that was over a million dollars and it was one of 25 in the world."

The total estimated cost of damage to the entire campus is about $45 million.

Brad Erisman has been working with the institute for the past four years and is an assistant professor of fisheries ecology.

Erisman thought the lab he worked out of was going to be the most vulnerable since it was built at sea level, but that wasn't the case.

"Ironically, it did better than most places. So, you just never know when it’s going to get hit," Erisman said.

He and his students' research is focused on fish, like sea trout and red drum.

"Understanding when and where and how and how many fish are spawning is absolutely critical information for monitoring fish population in managing the fishery," Erisman said.

"I mean this community, these areas, the economy, the livelihoods and the recreation; everyone depends on fisheries around here."

As Harvey approached the Texas coast, researchers were told to evacuate.

One study involved high tech underwater microphones used to listen on the fish below. One of Erisman's students tried pulling as many of those microphones from the water before Harvey's arrival. Seven, however, were left in the water and only five survived the storm -- but what they picked up left Erisman intrigued.

"The shapes of the little river mouths have completely changed. All that’s different, but underwater, all these fish they didn’t miss a beat," Erisman said.

The microphones picked up the spawning sounds of sea trout as Hurricane Harvey blew over.

"The timing of the spawning is the evening. And that's exactly when the eye of the hurricane came past over. So basically, we were completely annihilated as a community or re-shaped and restructured. These fish are well adapted," Erisman said.

The fish not only continued with nature's course on the day Harvey blew through but also every day after until spawning season ended. Some in the lab has described the sea trout as "Texas Strong."

When fishermen finally returned to the water, there was a sign of fish flourishing below the water's surface.

"I can tell you this spring, all the way through the summer, it's been one of the best trout years we've seen. I can't explain. I can only speculate as to why," Erisman said.

Researchers at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi are also looking at marine life after Hurricane Harvey. Dr. Paul Montagna said the hurricane offered an opportunity of study when looking at the San Antonio Bay.

The area had seen several years of drought and as a result, the water had a higher ration of salinity. When Hurricane Harvey arrived, large amounts of freshwater quickly decreased that salinity.

The change was so quick, it killed off many organisms, but it also gave a different set of organisms the opportunity to grow like the dwarf surf clam.

Montagna said that change could have had something to do with the increase in fish reported in San Antonio Bay.

"I think one of the reasons is these small organisms that live in the mud, the redfish, the trout, the flounder feed on and so as these forage for these fish. These populations boom, there's more food around for the fish to eat, so they're coming back real strong as well," Montagna said.

Montagna mentioned it was important to study both extremes when looking at the range of responses in bay systems. Since San Antonio Bay had been reacting to a drought for several years, Harvey offered an opportunity to look at another extreme.

In Port Aransas, the Marine Science Institute is also learning from Harvey as it makes repairs.

"We're taking lessons learned from Harvey and taking that opportunity to make our facilities better, stronger and harder," Palmer said.


About the Author:

Adrian Ortega is a news producer for the Nightbeat. He joined the station in 2016. Adrian helped expand the Nightbeat to a one-hour newscast on the weekend and is now producing for the Nightbeat 5 times per week. He's helped cover the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 winter storm, race and policing in SA and the Alazan-Apache Courts on the West Side.