CORPUS CHRISTI — In late August 2017, as Hurricane Harvey churned over the Gulf of Mexico, staffers at the Texas State Aquarium closely monitored the storm’s approach. They were particularly concerned about the impact of the storm on the aquarium’s Wildlife Rescue Center, an animal hospital and rehabilitation center housed in a decades-old warehouse 2 miles from the main campus.
The center is the only wildlife rehabilitation center in Texas — and one of a few in the U.S. — able to simultaneously care for raptors, shorebirds, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles. In the wake of big storms, a large influx of injured animals from across the Coastal Bend region always stream into the facility. But unlike the aquarium, it isn't built to withstand a major hurricane — or any kind of hurricane at all.
When it became clear that Harvey was going to hit the Corpus area, aquarium staff began to evacuate the rescue center. In five hours, they loaded 25 stingrays, six sea turtles, four dolphins, 15 reptiles, 40 birds and dozens of other animals — many of them injured and awaiting surgery — into crates and special transport containers and shuttled the animals to the main aquarium along with some surgical equipment.
The process was complicated by tropical storm-force winds, which made outdoor activity at the center all but impossible. The next day when Harvey slammed the coast, making landfall between Port Aransas and Port O’Connor, winds outside the aquarium clocked in at more than 120 miles per hour. But Jesse Gilbert, the aquarium's chief operating officer, said they got lucky.
“Had that eye wall come ashore 20 miles south of where it did, I’m not sure that we’d be standing here right now," Gilbert said during a tour of the rescue center in February.
Gilbert said it was the first time they'd had to evacuate the center in his 15 years at the aquarium.
Preparing for the next catastrophic storm is just one reason the aquarium has hatched plans to build a new — and far sturdier — rehabilitation facility right next door to the aquarium. And officials there are asking state lawmakers to appropriate at least $8 million of the project's estimated $22 million cost.
Although it's the official aquarium of Texas, it has traditionally received no financial support from the state. The lone exception was in 2015, when the state appropriated $9 million in general revenue to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department so the agency could give it to the aquarium. That grant helped fund the aquarium's Caribbean Journey exhibit, which opened in May 2017.
Four years later, top aquarium officials like Tom Schmid are hoping for a similar outcome.
“In a new center with greater capacity, state-of-the-art equipment and better facilities, we could certainly treat more animals,” said Schmid, the aquarium’s president and CEO. “Right now, the facility is completely hidden away, but this is an opportunity to bring more public awareness to our core mission and the plight that wildlife faces.”
Since 2005, the aquarium's wildlife rescue and recovery program has rehabilitated more than 2,600 animals. In 2017 alone, the rescue center admitted more than 500 animals, including 66 shorebirds, 283 raptors and 173 sea turtles.
Without state assistance, Gilbert says, it would take far longer to construct the facility. For the $50 million Caribbean Journey exhibit, the aquarium still had to raise another $41 million — a process that took five years.
With the start of hurricane season in June, there is an added sense of urgency.
State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen who represents Corpus Christi and is championing the plan, said it “has a lot of merit.”
“I’m in complete support,” said Hinojosa, who is vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee. “It's the only center in Texas with those programs. With hurricanes — which aren’t going away — and manmade disasters, this ought to be a priority."
House and Senate base budgets don't include money for the project, but Hinojosa said he hopes the request will be considered during budget negotiations.
The center moved into the old warehouse in 1989. Gilbert says he thinks it used to house ship anchors, but he can't be sure.
It's been upgraded over the years to accommodate more animals and medical procedures. But staffers say a facility that's designed for its intended purpose would mean they could treat more injured animals — including after natural disasters — and more quickly return them to their natural habitats. A larger space also would mean the center could receive visitors, which it hasn't been able to do.
But perhaps most important, a new center would be able to better withstand a hurricane. While the main aquarium is built to withstand a Category 5 storm, the warehouse that houses the center is made of sheet metal panels that could blow away in high winds.
If it closed, staffers say more than 350 animals would go untreated in any given year.
During Harvey, the aquarium took in marine animals and birds from the University of Texas-Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor, now closed, including a Moray eel.
The center was also stretched thin last spring when water temperatures in Corpus Christi-area bays unexpectedly dropped, sending hundreds of sea turtles into hypothermic shock. Knowing the reptiles were unable to swim — and thus unable defend themselves from predators — aquarium staffers orchestrated a rescue operation that brought more than 1,200 turtles to the center.
While the rescue center successfully managed the event, aquarium Chief Operating Officer Jesse Gilbert said it also posed a missed opportunity for research as the center lacks diagnostic equipment that could have helped assess the causes and distribution of disease in sea turtles, as well as internal injuries.
“Had we had a CAT scan machine, we could’ve started to build a database on what we’re seeing in wild sea turtles,” said Gilbert, an aquarium senior vice president. “That is a game-changer for Texas wildlife conservation because it helps us learn more about them and will increase our capacity to preserve wildlife.”
If the aquarium secures state funding — Schmid lobbied at the Capitol in early February — officials say they could break ground in January and open the new center sometime in 2021.