One day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana with 145 mph winds the National Weather Service issued warnings that most of the New Orleans area would be uninhabitable for weeks, maybe longer. Human suffering, the NWS warned, would be incredible. This prediction was nothing new. For decades forecasters had cautioned about the devastation that a Category 4 hurricane or better would mean to the region. All their worst admonishments turned to painful reality.
Still, it wasn't the terrible wind or rain that brought industry to a standstill. For industry, the impact came in a thousand awkward logistical problems that few pre-plans adequately addressed. Most plants opted to shut down operations and move their critical personnel, including emergency responders and their equipment,to a safer locale. Some of the communities designated as safer locales got clobbered almost as hard as New Orleans. A 120 mph wind dropping tree branches on your fire truck is not much better than staying home.
Where most pre-plans run out of gas is dealing with the hurricane's aftermath. Personnel trying to get back to their facilities were greeted by debris of every description blocking the highways. Chain saws were not standard equipment on most industrial fire apparatus. Even if it was, a single chain saw was almost as bad as none at all. It took an army equipped with chain saws and heavy equipment to make the roads of southeast Louisiana passable again.
As emergency responders got back to their plants, a new set of problems emerged -- no water, power or adequate shelter. How do you feed your people when high winds have relocated the 7-Eleven to a new zip code? Management may be reduced to scavenging at the Piggly Wiggly along with the remainder of the local population. Who gets priority? Try preaching about the economic chaos for the nation when there is only one gallon of clean water left on the store shelf and a mother with six kids got there first.
The most critical problem that industry faced was lack of communications. Cell phones? If the cell towers were still standing, the backup generators powering them soon ran out of fuel. In any case, the tremendous call volume after such a catastrophe usually shuts down the cell service. Satellite phone? As with the chainsaws, having one satellite phone for an entire industrial facility is hardly adequate in a Katrina-scale disaster. Redundancy is the key to any emergency communications system.
On this score, the government has taken some important steps. The feds are issuing free coded cell phone calling cards that give you access to the system when all other lines are blocked. The card gives you access to a trouble-free area code set aside for emergency use. IFW will have more on this program in future issues.
How do you fuel your emergency vehicles when there is no power to pump the fuel? Gasoline, gasoline everywhere but not a drop to burn. In September 2005, Industrial Fire World magazine led a group of Bryan- College Station, TX, businesses in an?impromptu effort to rush badly needed fuel and food to industrial firefighters protecting Gulf Coast refineries. Williams Fire & Hazard Control has standing commitments to protect many such refineries. However, Rita forced Williams F&HC to evacuate their headquarters in Mauriceville near Beaumont, TX, and move their families to safety inland. Then, taking up a position at a roadside park midway between San Antonio and Houston, the firefighters waited.
Once the storm passed, the firefighters deployed to the various refineries to which they had been assigned. Many of the Beaumont-Port Arthur area facilities had been subjected to extensive flooding and wind damage. In many cases, foam blankets were needed to cover leaking fuel and prevent ignition. Yet, despite a wealth of fuel in storage at these facilities, firefighters soon found themselves running critically short of gasoline.
Okay, the short term problems have been resolved. Time to start rebuilding the facility. That means a ton of contract workers arriving soon. Where are you going to house them? The Holiday Inn changed zip codes too. Some plants rented tents or travel trailers. One company rented a cruise ship and tied it up to their docks.
True, FEMA had many resources that could have helped get these plants back online quicker. But FEMA is forbidden by law to assist the private sector in an emergency. This is a sore point with me. The National Response Plan describes how the federal government will work in concert with state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector to respond to disasters. Industry is mentioned dozens of times in this document as a recovery resource. Yet, FEMA cannot and will not help industry in a time of crisis.
Katrina damaged or destroyed 30 oil platforms and caused the closure of nine refineries. The total shut-in oil production from the Gulf of Mexico in the six-month period following Katrina was approximately 24 percent of the annual production. The shut-in of gas production for the same period was about 18 percent. None of this was good for the nation, meaning the public sector suffered as much as the private. Dividing rescue resources as to penalize industry in turn penalized the country. If the 2007 hurricane season proves as busy as 2005, the government needs to reexamine how best to bring relief to the nation overall.
At the recent NFPA conference we found new technologies to assist you with mass notification, explosion management and user-friendly responder communication from fire control panels. We are featuring them in this issue to assist you in preparing for future upgrades in response resources when appropriate.