Sullivan also spent the better part of the last 20 years selectively breeding striped and white bass to create the best brood stock possible from which to develop hybrids.

The fish with which Sullivan works are at the Pamlico Aquaculture Field Laboratory, which occupies 150 acres of an area called Hickory Point near Aurora. Hickory Point is surrounded on three sides by water, the Pamlico River, South Creek and Pamlico Sound.

It is home to thousands of striped and white bass, from relatively small yearlings to older fish that typically weigh well over 10 pounds. Sullivan calls the field lab “the center of the striped bass universe.”

While the field lab has 16 quarter-acre ponds, the fish are kept in above-ground tanks, either 10 or 24 feet in diameter. Younger, smaller fish occupy the 10-foot tanks, while larger fish are kept in the 24-foot tanks.

Sullivan said Andy McGinty, field lab superintendent, research technicians Mike Hopper and Brad Ring, and James Stallings, a local resident who works at the field lab part-time, did as much as they could to ready the field lab for a direct hit from Irene. They moved some smaller fish to aquaculture farms in the area and stationed equipment on pond dikes, the highest points in the area. But there was nothing they could do for the larger fish in the larger tanks.

When Irene spun through the area, it sent a storm surge over the field lab, submerging the area in a flood roughly 8 feet deep. Water rose a foot or more over the tanks, Sullivan said.

The area experienced some of the worst flooding in North Carolina. Sullivan said there are perhaps 200 homes in the area, and most sustained flood damage that left them uninhabitable.

James Stallings called Sullivan as Irene moved through the area. Stallings’ home is raised well above ground level, yet when he called Sullivan, he said the water was only a foot or two from entering his home and was rising at a rate of a foot every 15 minutes. The surge stopped and the water began to recede just before entering Stallings’ home.

Many of Sullivan’s fish were also spared. While the storm surge more than topped the larger tanks, Sullivan said the fish remained in the tanks.

“I really think they just didn’t want to leave,” Sullivan said of the fish. “I think that roiled up river water probably smelled bad and tasted bad to them.” The fish apparently hunkered down in the bottom of their home tanks and rode out the storm.

In addition to tanks and ponds, the field lab contains a number of small and large buildings, and most of these sustained significant flood damage. A dormitory was a total loss.

“Initially, it was a horrifying scene,” Sullivan said of the morning after the storm. And, in fact, the aftermath of the storm held as much peril for the fish as the storm itself.

All the tanks are aerated by pumping water from two wells on the property into them. The storm surge took out power and washed out the road to the field lab. Without aeration, the oxygen in the tanks was not sufficient to support the fish.

Sullivan credited the tireless work of McGinty, Hopper and Stallings, his students and a four-man crew from the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory in Raleigh with getting the Pamlico Field Lab back on line in time to save the fish.

Sullivan said Hopper and Stallings were at the field lab at 9 a.m. the morning after the storm, and McGinty arrived shortly thereafter.

Hopper, who lives in Washington, had loaded his truck with a jon boat, chain saws, bicycle and other gear and headed for the field lab.