Aquarium Survives Storm With No Casualties

December 07, 2007

Emergency preparedness is key to keeping Aquarium animals safe

Recent storms in the Pacific Northwest wreaked devastation, disrupting communities from California to Alaska. The news was full of stories about property damage, human tragedy and financial hardship. One thing that was not in the news was the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Coastal communities are familiar with power outages, downed trees, mudslides and high water during storms of this magnitude, so the Aquarium staff makes it a part of their routine to always be prepared.

“We were without power for 24 hours,” said Jim Burke, Aquarium Director of Animal Husbandry, “but we didn’t lose a single animal.” Burke said with the high wind warning in effect, he knew there was potential for an outage, so he came to work Sunday to be ready. “Storms like this usually hit in the middle of the night, but this one happened at 11:00 am Sunday, so there was plenty of staff on site. We are always prepared for what might happen.”

Gary Smith, Aquarium Curator of Life Support systems, spent thirty hours on duty during the storm. “Staff members put in long hours to make sure the animals were safe,” Smith said. “This was the longest power outage the Aquarium has experienced, I think because the two storms in a row made it an extra long period of high winds. We had six to eight hours of 75 mph winds and higher, followed by thirty hours of 50 mph winds.” Smith’s job includes monitoring about 1,800,000 gallons of water which support over 15,000 animals in Aquarium exhibits. Life Support does repair and replacement on pump filters, air blowers, and the back-up generators. Aquarists oversee the daily activity of pump flows, adjustments, and temperature. Smith said the Aquarium staff routine includes regular practice runs and drills to ensure preparedness for the unexpected, including power loss. “We keep our generators maintained and ready to go and our staff has a well rehearsed protocol in place at all times.”

The preparation pays off—not a single fish was worse for the wear in the last storm, even though the building itself lost a four by eight foot piece of glass near the Passages of the Deep exhibit. “We are always prepared,” said Dale Schmidt, Aquarium President. “But we also have Central Lincoln PUD to thank. They really make us a priority during power outages.”

The Aquarium is situated on 34 acres with 50,000 square feet of building space housing exhibits, classrooms, labs and life support facilities. Outdoor exhibits include a seabird aviary, otter exhibit, pinniped exhibit and extensive native flora. Preparing a facility of this size for 100 plus mph winds is a task that staff members take very seriously. “A lot of ground has to be covered, including preparing emergency pumps, generators, radios, monitoring of oxygen levels, temperature and for longer outages—ammonia and nitrites,” said Burke.

During an outage, the Aquarium ceases to intake water from the bay, and instead utilizes water in an emergency reservoir as backup. “Theoretically, we could go two weeks if we are able to keep our generators fuelled and free from mechanical breakdown, but we hope we never have to,” said Burke. “We have a plan in place with 30 to 40 percent of our power supply on emergency generators and within that plan is a process of prioritization, with animal health at the top. Ideally, we’d like to have 70 percent of our power supply on backup.” Burke says another generator is on the Aquarium’s wish list.

The Aquarium survived another severe storm without a single casualty partly because of the sense of commitment shared by employees, according to Burke. He credits the dedication of staff members who have families and homes they leave to go to work in the midst of a storm. “It’s a big responsibility to have captive animals. It’s our duty and responsibility to have a well rehearsed emergency management plan to ensure the safety of every animal.”