Article Archive
A Tale of Two Witches
Hurricanes Raise Havoc With Gulf Coast Refineries
Vol. 20 No. 6

What are the lessons learned for industrial facilities and emergency responders related to recent hurricane experiences they encountered? There are a thousand stories about the challenges that were met by responders who either stayed behind when the hurricane hit or tried to rush back as soon as possible afterward.

What comes out of this is the glaring message that industry is not immune to the same problems that befall a local grocery store, neighborhood bar, or the nearby hotel hit by the same devastating event.

First thing, you will not have electricity for a period of time. Weeks after Katrina and Rita areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas are still without power. How do you obtain generators? The local "U RentM" outlet? You will be standing in line with the aforementioned grocer, bartender and hotel proprietor. You need a commitment from a company that supplies generators to run your critical facilities such as your control room or the feed water pump for boilers. To get operations started, your shop needs generators for welders who have to replace pipes, pumps and valves.

Then, we realize that the evacuation took with it critical equipment such as fire trucks, shop vehicles and computers. While it's wise to remove these to a safe place, what security do we have for it? What if we can't get it back because bridges and roads are blocked? And what about communications? Without electricity, even the cell phones are dead. Customers have no way to reach you. Worse, you have no way to reach the pipefitters, welders and firefighters you may need. With no phone lines operational, your computer data bases may be inaccessable. What do you have in your disaster plan to cover temporarily relocating administrative offices to another facility, possibly out of state? Communications problems may not be strictly electronic. Many of the Katrina-Rita ravaged communities still don't have routine mail service. Smaller businesses may close indefinitely for failure to plan for the lack of these critical services.

The tragedy of hurricanes Katrina and Rita give us an important opportunity to learn. Twenty years ago I went to a historic high rise fire in a Los Angeles bank building. The amazing lesson I learned was about planning for the unthinkable. Fire roared through three floors of that high rise late in the evening. By daylight the bank had computers up and running in another location, as planned. Every day those machines were down would have meant millions in losses. The same holds true for a chemical plant or refinery.

Another lesson from the hurricanes is that employees have obligations to their families before their jobs. That can mean traveling half way across the country to be with relatives if there are no accessible, affordable places to stay after the storm. When it's time for them to return to help with recovery and startup, how do they get back? Gasoline was not to be had in many areas along major highways used by evacuees. Bus, train and plane service may be kaput. Plants were trying to restart that could not locate or return employees. Even if the employees are on hand there are logistical problems such as feeding and housing them.

We have to develop specific disaster plans that are real, not a copy of a plan for another kind of plant located in another state. That plan must relate to the real world where hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters occur. Granted, Katrina and Rita impacted more facilities in a larger area than ever in the history of America. About 15 years ago I sat next to the head of FEMA discussing the potential calamity if a category four or five hurricane went up the Houston Ship Channel or the Mississippi River, knocking out 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. gasoline refineries. No backup plan existed to replace them. Sure, we can pump all of the crude oil we want out of the Strategic Oil Reserves. Where are reserves of refined gasoline?

A hurricane could put salt water into every plant on the ship channel 10 feet deep. Returning to full operation could take six months to one year. There would be a critical shortage of maintenance people because companies have largely replaced them with contractors. Such contactors would be overwhelmed by the demands of several hundred plants needing immediate attention.

Of course, maintenance people can't work without parts. These plants would need new valves, electronics, computers, gauging equipment and other parts. The response from your friendly supplier? "Yeah, you and 1,000 other people need one - I've got two in stock."

All I can do is advise. We need a critical stockpile of items that would be in short supply in such a disaster. Decision makers think they have enough clout to get what they need. But with a massive number of diverse industries seeking supplies there won't be enough fill the orders fast enough.

That's what makes it so important to plan. We tend to operate on the assuption that the worse won't happen to us. It can, it has and it will happen again. We thought that it was over after Katrina and then Rita came along. No individual or company is bulletproof when it comes to disasters. We plan for fighting fires. But do we have a disaster plan that is flexible and broad enough in scope to encompass the unthinkable?

At the IFW Conference & Exposition, March 27-31, 2006, in Baton Rouge, LA, the opening day will be devoted to presentations and a panel discussion on how industries dealt with hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A white paper will be compiled by IFW with recommendation forwarded to agencies such as FEMA. o


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