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Shelter From the Storm
Lessons That Hurricane Rita Taught Louisiana Emergency Responders

Due to the destruction visited upon New Orleans, Katrina is the more famous of the two Category 5 hurricanes that pounded the U.S. Gulf Coast during the turbulent 2005 hurricane season. But Hurricane Rita, the latter of the two, was anything but a weak sister.

For Martin Powell, emergency response coordinator for the CITGO refinery in Lake Charles, LA, Rita was "our hurricane."

"I don't believe you can find anyone in southwest Louisiana or southeast Texas who was not affected by it, whether personally or through their job," Powell said.

Hurricane Rita brought inland winds of more than 150 miles per hour, causing an estimated $11.3 billion in damage and obliterating some coastal communities. With Hurricane Rita making landfall near the Beaumont/Port Arthur, TX, and Lake Charles, LA, refining centers, seven refineries, amounting to 1.7 million barrels per day of refinery capacity (10 percent of U.S. refinery capacity), were directly in the path or very near the path of the hurricane.

Only 30 miles of coastal prairies and marshes with elevation slightly above sea level separates the Lake Charles area, situated on the Calcasieu River, from the Gulf Coast.

Powell and James Gayle, the refinery's emergency response training coordinator, addressed the 2006 Industrial Fire World Conference and Exposition in Baton Rouge on how responders struggled to deal effectively with the post-Rita emergency at their refinery and throughout the surrounding community.

In Lake Charles, the CITGO complex encompasses 2,000 acres, including both the refinery, which at 425,000 barrels per day ranks as the fourth largest refinery in the nation, and the Lake Charles Lubricants and Wax Plant. Together, the two facilities employ almost 1,250 full-time employees.

At CITGO, responders soon learned that hurricanes make nonsense out of the best organized timetable. In September 2005, with Hurricane Rita violently churning in the Gulf of Mexico, emergency responders turned to their facility's hurricane pre-plan for guidance in preparing.

"When the storm reaches a certain distance from the refinery, you have a line item list that you follow exactly," Powell said. "At that time, we had a hurricane that was supposed to hit the south end of Texas."

Unfortunately, every new report moved it closer and closer to Lake Charles. Soon Hurricane Rita was barreling down on them, he said. It was time to notify the "ride-out" crew.

To make extra money or just the desire to help, some employees volunteer to serve on the ride-out crew, a group of operators and responders who staff the refinery when hurricanes threaten. For Gayle, the time had come to earn that pay.

"I'd been on the crew for years, thinking that hurricanes never come our way," he said, laughing.

At first, management planned to maintain minimum operations throughout the storm using the ride-out crew. As it became clear that Lake Charles would be ground zero for the approaching hurricane, it was decided that all staff, including the ride-out crew, would be evacuated. For the first time in its 60year history, the refinery would shut down and close. To beat the hurricane, it would have to be shut down in record time.

"I was very proud of the way we did it so we would be prepared for start up, in what we expected would be a few days," Powell said.

With flooding likely, leaving the inventory of emergency vehicles at the refinery meant the chance of losing them. The decision was made to send half of the fleet to higher ground in DeQuincy, 20 miles north. For Gayle, a resident and captain of the local volunteer fire department, the trip to DeQuincy presented the chance to kill two birds with one stone.

"I'm going to be working on the volunteer fire department anyway, so why don't I take care of our equipment while I'm there," Gayle said.

Rural/Metro Corporation provides contract emergency responders for the Lake Charles CITGO refinery. Those responders would travel north with Gayle. Meanwhile, the other half of the equipment would stay at the refinery where, despite the shutdown, it was decided to keep a small staff on site for security purposes.

"We had a couple of safety guys, the plant supervisors including myself, and some other key personnel," Powell said. "We kept one paramedic and the group heading for DeQuincy took the other. Everyone else left the refinery."

On Sept. 22, two days before the storm hit, a mandatory evacuation of Lake Charles, population 71,700, was ordered. About 90 percent of that population took to the roads, leaving Highway 27 heading north jammed with traffic. But by the next day, when the emergency responders left for DeQuincy, traffic had thinned to nothing.

"Tumbleweeds were practically blowing down the road," Gayle said. "The sides of the road were lined with empty cars abandoned when they overheated or ran out of gas."

After the responders reached their destination, the DeQuincy Airpark, nothing would prove easy again. Leaving the vehicles at the airpark, the responders set out to find a place where they could ride out the expected storm. The DeQuincy middle school had been designated as an emergency shelter for the area. When they reached the school, the responders found out different.

"Once the mandatory evacuation was declared, everybody left," Gayle said. "We got to the shelter and it was locked."

Other than a change of clothes, the responders brought nothing but the vehicles. No food. No water. Not that the departing refugees left much behind. The local Wal-Mart had been stripped of everything edible.

Fortunately, the Rural/Metro responders and one of the CITGO Safety Tactical Chiefs had brought along their company credit cards. The credit cards were put to work at the only store left open in DeQuincy. State law not withstanding, it is a proven fact that hurricanes contribute to hyperinflation in local economies.

"They were charged $200 for a case of water and a bag of chips," Gayle said. Given that the owner was openly gouging, the lack of public outcry when his business was burglarized during the storm came as no surprise to the local law enforcement community, he said.

Eventually the responders found somebody with a key to the middle school. With Hurricane Rita due shortly, the Rural/Metro responders took shelter in the school library. Gayle, on duty as a volunteer firefighter, spent the night at his fire station.

At 2:38 a.m. Sept. 24, Rita made landfall between Sabine Pass, TX, and Johnson's Bayou, LA, as a Category 3 hurricane with winds at 115 mph. At the refinery, trees and utility poles fell and power lines were downed, Powell said. The high winds stripped away insulation and sheet metal. Soon the electrical power failed.

"The refinery was an eerie sight, especially at night, when you don't even have a flare burning," Powell said. "It was so dark. I'd never seen it that way."

Being further inland was not much of a comfort to Gayle and the Rural/ Metro responders. Today, Gayle swears he will never ride out a hurricane again in a metal fire station.

"At my fire station we had a generator, phones and, for a little while, air conditioning." Gayle said. "The poor Rural/Metro guys found themselves in darkness pretty quick. The wind ripped off part of the roof at the school. After the hurricane passed, all they could do was sit there, in the dark, and listen to all the tornadoes that followed."

In Lake Charles, refinery management spent the morning after the storm conducting an initial survey to determine the extent of damage. Two empty tanks had collapsed, but there were no sunken roofs on tanks with product reported. However, dealing with the minor damage would be almost as troublesome as the major damage.

"There were hazards up in the structures such as sheet metal that could fall on personnel," Powell said. "As far as the insulation, there was asbestos everywhere from older portions of the refinery. Anyone working in a facility of any age knows that you have to contend with that."

In DeQuincy, dawn revealed that everything taller than 20 feet had been ripped down and the landscape was littered with twisted and fallen trees intertwined with downed power lines.

Gayle and his wife, who is also a volunteer firefighter, had ridden out the storm together at the fire station. As for the Rural/Metro responders, Gayle said he was certain that their first thoughts that morning were about their loved ones.

"The main thing you think about is your family and if they made it out," Gayle said. "Then everybody starts worrying about whether their house is still on the slab. For the moment, we had to put all that aside."

Other families would become the principle concern for the visiting responders that morning. Unaware that the middle school was not staffed as a shelter, unexpected guests, most of them Texans moving north from Houston, arrived needing help.

"We start getting kids," Gayle said. "We started getting people with diabetic emergencies. Other than the water we had for ourselves, there was none. We wanted to protect that supply, but then you hear a three year old crying for a drink."

As in Lake Charles, mutual aid ceased to exist. Firefighters and 20 members of the sheriff's department who rode out the storm at the high school found themselves without radio communication or cell phones. The only radio working was one that Gayle brought from the refinery.

"I could talk with Martin at the plant," Gayle said. "About all I had to report was 'Hey, we're alive.'"

In DeQuincy, the situation continued to deteriorate. At the middle school, a man went berserk and attempted to commit suicide by stripping off his clothes and lying in the middle of the highway.

"We're now responsible for this guy," Gayle said. "That kept our paramedic tied up."

The only hospital still operating in the region was in Sulphur, just four miles from the CITGO refinery. In the fire department pre-plan, the highway department should begin clearing highways immediately after any hurricane. It would be almost two weeks before the highway department reached DeQuincy, Gayle said. Using a 12-inch chain saw and a fire axe, the responders took matters into their own hands. Most of the refinery's emergency equipment would stay in DeQuincy until that was accomplished.

The first downed power line blocking the way demanded a command decision by Gayle.

"What's the rule when a firefighter finds a downed powerline?" Gayle said. "Treat it like it's live, right? I told the firefighter next to me that we needed to cut this power line. The firefighter, who happens to be my wife, says 'Guess again!' So I'm the one who took the fire axe to the power line, praying all the time."

Fortunately, it cut like butter without a single spark. Many fallen trees and dead power lines later, the responders made it back to the refinery. Almost immediately, the responders refueled the available vehicles to return to DeQuincy for the rest of the emergency equipment.

With no power at the refinery, the vehicles had to be filled with fuel by gravity feed. Other power sources also needed feeding. Radio batteries were in bad need of a recharge, Gayle said.

Emergency readiness continued to be an issue in moving the rest of the emergency equipment back to Lake Charles. Flat tires, resulting from debris, left several emergency vehicles on the side of the road.

"Sure, we had a few of those little puncture kits," Gayle said. "But how do you fill the tire up again? These are big tires and we didn't have a big enough portable air compressor. When you take your equipment out of the facility, make sure you have some way to repair it."

Once the responders returned to Lake Charles, provisions for shelter and food at the plant had to be made. For the foreseeable future, the limited living space available would become coed to facilitate both male and female employees.

"Some of these people didn't have homes to go to anymore," Powell said. "They had nowhere to stay."

Beside shelter, another necessity sorely lacking was clean water. Drafting from anything other than fire ponds was not an option because of the heavy debris found in the river water. With no access to municipal sources, refinery personnel turned to a small well at the main entrance of the refinery used to keep the shrubbery alive. It took several days to accomplish, but using a generator for power and a fire hose to move the water gave the staff enough for personal hygiene.

As far as emergency response, absolutely no mutual aid was available from surrounding communities. Ordinarily, the refinery has an eight-member emergency response team on duty beside the Rural/Metro responders. But that ERT is staffed by machinists and operators, people who would have

more than enough to do without worrying about the fire bell.

At the refinery, arrangements were being made to get area mutual aid back on track by supplying gasoline where needed. To supply emergency response at the refinery, CITGO contacted private contractor Williams Fire & Hazard Control and sister CITGO facilities in Lamont, IL, Corpus Christi, TX and Savannah, GA. Arrangements were made through Refinery Terminal Fire Company in Corpus Christi to beef up the refinery's emergency response team with 10 additional responders.

Work to restart the refinery proceeded during daylight hours only. It would be several weeks before power could be restored for night work. Other challenges kept the emergency responders busy. During that period, the ERT dealt with more than 16 individual emergency responses, Powell said.

"With the personnel we had on site nothing went above one alarm," Powell said. "If it had gotten worse than one alarm, the personnel on site were all the help we were going to get."

Water continued to be an issue. Before utility companies restored service, the refinery's fire water system had to be brought back online.

"The fire water system had gone completely static," Powell said. "We had no pressure. If we had a fire in our tank farm, the fire water we thought we'd have by kicking on a diesel powered pump wasn't there."

Sediment from the brackish river water blocked key points within the fire grid system of supply lines. The solution called for using pumps on opposite sides of the system to alternate pressure or jockey it and flush water through the nearest hydrants in the vicinity of the plug. After four hours, the system was cleared. Since then, the refinery has installed an independent diesel-powered generator on an electric jockey pump to keep pressure on the system.

"One thing to remember if you ever have to shut down your fire water system is to block in all the deluge systems," Powell said. The different systems would rob water pressure from the main system, and with limited personnel it was time consuming to locate the tripped systems.

On Oct. 6, the refinery restarted its first boiler unit. Shortly thereafter it returned to 24-hour production.

As difficult as recovery proved to be, it might have been much worse had Katrina not pummelled eastern Louisiana and Mississippi only three weeks before Rita, Powell said. Because of Katrina, officials acted decisively to make the important decisions that saved property and lives.

"Katrina saved us," Powell said. "The guys that had to deal with Katrina, our hearts go out to them. As bad as Rita was for us, I know Katrina was a lot worse for you."

 
 

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