Plant Rebounds After Natural Disaster

Company learns valuable lessons about dealing with devastation.

By Jerry Melton and Travis Melton, Complex Chemical Co.

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1407 plant rebounds after natural disaster buttonIf a natural disaster hit your business, would you be prepared? How would you recover from the damage to your infrastructure?

Unfortunately, we had to learn the real-life answers to these questions when, on April 24, 2010, a powerful tornado hit our chemical processing plant in Tallulah, La. A “tornado outbreak” — several tornados from the same weather system — ripped through four southern states, causing severe damage including multiple injuries and fatalities. When the tornado reached our plant, 14 employees were present. Luckily, nobody was seriously hurt (three people sustained minor injuries). However, the tornado devastated our entire 20-acre facility, as the lead photo shows.

Our family-owned company, Complex Chemical Co., manufactures antifreeze, brake fluid and viscosity improvement additives for oil. It has been in operation since 1974 but never before had experienced anything like this catastrophe. Fortunately, between preparations we had made in advance and actions we quickly took after the event, the damage was minimized and recovery was relatively swift. Still, without a crystal ball, no company can prepare for every eventuality nor can it fully protect itself from the immense power of nature. In the wake of the tornado, we learned about the reality of recovery and the efficacy of the measures we had taken in advance to protect our business.

Evaluating the extent of the damage — with a particular focus on identifying safety issues — is the most pressing thing to be done in the early days after a disaster. Are there any immediate hazards? What can be fixed, as opposed to what must be replaced? What kind of cleanup must be done right away? How has transportation been affected?

Three days after the tornado, we were able to take stock of the extensive damage to the facility. It was painfully apparent that all our warehouses and office areas were virtually destroyed. The electrical infrastructure also was wiped out completely, the piping system was damaged severely, and all communications were down. Three railcars were lying on their sides, with several others leaning and in danger of turning over as well. Seven storage tanks had toppled. Piles of twisted metal and other debris were scattered throughout the plant; several inches of spilled materials covered the containment areas, driveway and former building areas.

There was some good news, too. Many elements of the facility actually had survived the tornado. Eleven processing units just had peripheral damage. The laboratory and heaters were damaged only slightly. Our central server survived, saving business records and many other crucial files. We also found that our spill prevention system had worked just as it was supposed to — no materials left the confines of the plant.

After surveying the wreckage, we began the long journey to rebuild our facility. It would take a full two years before the rebuilding was finished.

The first week after the tornado, our operations, safety and management departments all got together and made a list of what had to be done on a prioritized basis, and created an “aggressive but doable” timetable to get each item functional.

Safety again was top priority. For a chemical facility, that means materials must be dealt with safely and quickly. We immediately pumped the majority of all spilled materials into temporary tanks for ultimate disposal.

The process of removing the endless debris also needed to begin right away. We hired contractors and rented heavy equipment to enable the debris removal process to proceed as rapidly as possible.

Increased supervision was essential during the initial recovery phase. Employees were grouped together into teams, with one supervisor for about every seven people. No one was permitted to walk around or work alone. We also ensured that employees had plenty of liquids and food available on site. We’re proud that out of 100 workers over a year’s time, we only had one minor injury.

Workers were at the plant from morning until night, seven days a week. We were so gratified and humbled by our employees’ commitment. Most worked 14-hour days for the first 30 consecutive days, and everyone was willing to do whatever was needed to achieve a rapid recovery. Many even offered to work without a paycheck for that month if it would help Complex survive. Of course, we compensated them for their hard work — but that really drove home the fact that our employees had a genuine concern for our company’s future. We felt incredibly blessed.

To keep customers content during uncertain times, supply continuity is essential. While getting a facility back up to speed, a business may contract other facilities to help supply its customers temporarily. We suggest possibly lining up interim suppliers in advance as part of an emergency plan. Additionally, temporary structures can replace elements of a facility like offices and warehouses. Consider long-term customer satisfaction over short-term expenses, and be willing to think outside the box. Renting equipment and offices may make sense if you’re able to service your customers sooner, even if you likely won’t get any immediate return on that investment.

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