If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Chemists in Texas assess damage from winter storm

Power outages and burst pipes result in flooding, canceled classes

by Bethany Halford , Megha Satyanarayana
March 1, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 7


Laboratories with floodwaters on the floor, garbage bins collecting water from the ceiling, and laboratory equipment covered with plastic sheets.
Credit: James Batteas
Water from burst pipes flooded labs at Texas A&M University.

Chemists across the state of Texas are assessing damage to their experiments, laboratories, and equipment after a severe winter storm that began Feb. 13. Unusually cold temperatures combined with power outages led many pipes in the region to freeze and then burst, causing water damage in several chemistry departments. Many schools also had to cancel classes because power outages made online instruction impossible.

Water from broken pipes flooded chemistry buildings at Texas A&M University, Texas Christian University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, according to chemists at those schools who spoke with C&EN. This list is not comprehensive and does not include universities in nearby states that were also struck by the storm.

Wenshe Liu, who leads a chemical biology group at Texas A&M, says he told his students to shut down all their reactions in anticipation of the storm. But he hadn’t expected pipes in the building to burst and flood his lab and others in the Chemistry Department. When he learned of the flooding, Liu was particularly worried about organometallic complexes in the lab’s hood that could catch fire if exposed to water. Fortunately, those reagents and most of the chemistry instruments were left unscathed. “In comparison to other departments in the university, we are one of very few that has survived the storm well,” he says.

Jeremiah J. Gassensmith, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, says when he heard the chemistry building’s fire suppression system may have frozen, he went into his lab to turn off hot plates and other equipment. “I thought it was a good idea to run in there and unplug everything,” he says. Gassensmith says burst pipes flooded two of the building’s three wings.

Mice that Gassensmith’s lab team was using for experiments died, he says, because unsafe road conditions kept people out of the lab. “That was probably our biggest loss.”

Icy roads kept many people at home, according to Emily Que, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where flooding closed some buildings and temporarily suspended lab work.

Damage to labs occurred against a backdrop of other problems. Jason S. McLellan, a structural biologist at UT Austin, tells C&EN that a postdoctoral fellow in his lab slipped on the ice, and the fall left him with a broken rib and internal bleeding that required two surgeries.

“It’s been a rough week,” McLellan says in an email. Although his home never lost power or heat, his family did not have running water in their home for 5 days. They melted snow by the fireplace to use for flushing toilets and cleaning dishes.

Kayunta Johnson-Winters, a biochemistry professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, says in an email that all her students lost power and water. “It was hard to watch my students struggle and there was nothing I could do to offer them comfort nor solutions,” she says. Grocery stores were nearly empty, she adds. “I have never seen anything like it.”

“As a native Texan, I can say that this was an incredibly challenging week for Texas,” Kayla N. Green, a chemistry professor at Texas Christian University, says in an email. “My heart just breaks for students, staff, and faculty. This has been incredibly stressful on so many on top of the challenges we have all faced in the past 12 months.”


A version of this story was posted on Feb. 23, 2021. It was updated on March 1, 2021, to include more recent information from sources.


A previous version of this article was updated on Feb. 23, 2021, to correct the misspelling of Jason S. McLellan's name.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.