Disaster Planning: Weather The Extremes

Successfully surviving severe natural events demands proper preparation

By Traci Purdum, Senior Digital Editor

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No one can stop the hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other severe events that Mother Nature throws our way. However, that doesn’t mean chemical plants shouldn’t prepare to cope with them with as little disruption as possible — to the environment, assets and the bottom line.

Last year, chemical facilities along the Gulf Coast endured Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, among others. Harvey, a Category 4 storm, alone caused $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center. One notable example of a chemical plant impacted by Hurricane Harvey was Arkema’s facility in Crosby, Texas, where some chemicals required refrigeration to stay inert. When the storm disabled the cooling equipment, temperatures rose and the chemicals decomposed, leading to explosions. (See: “Ponder Hurricane Harvey’s Hard Knocks.”) Maria knocked out power on Puerto Rico and devastated roads and other infrastructure, severely impacting the many pharmaceutical plants there.

In addition, rogue snowstorms also hit the southern portion of the United States — causing significant problems for plants not used to dealing with substantial snowfall.

Common Error

If you think an extreme weather event is unlikely to happen at your plant, you’re not alone. According to a survey of senior financial executives at large U.S.-based companies with operations in Texas, Florida or Puerto Rico conducted by FM Global, Johnston, R.I., a mutual insurance company specializing in property risk management, 64% of the respondents said 2017’s hurricane season had an adverse impact on their operations. Of those impacted, 62% admitted they were “not completely prepared” to deal with the effects of the hurricanes. As a result, 68% of all respondents stated they will make changes to their risk-management strategy going forward.

“These candid admissions drive home a fundamental truth about catastrophe,” says Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research at FM Global. “People routinely fail to understand or acknowledge the magnitude of risk until they’ve experienced a fateful event.”

Also contributing to inadequate arrangements is imprecise terminology, he believes. “[B]eing in a “100-year flood” zone does not mean you have 99 years to plan. Rather, there’s a 1% chance of such a flood every year. Another reason for insufficient preparation is over-reliance on insurance, which cannot restore market share, brand equity and shareholder value lost to competitors. A third reason is denial of risk.”

Dr. Sam Mannan, director of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A & M University (and presenter of CP’s popular Process Safety webinar series), agrees that most plants aren’t prepared for weather extremes. “When you get to the point when you realize the design [of the plant] isn’t good enough, you can’t relocate. You have to retrofit — add pumps and redundant systems. Some have fallen short in doing that.

“You have to monitor for the weather — and when it hits you go into shutdown mode… But the problem is that you eventually have to start up again and that’s the source of many accidents. You don’t know what equipment has been impacted. You must do start-up tests. It’s a nasty ball of wax that comes into play,” notes Mannan.

He adds that extreme weather is a recent phenomenon. “If you look at the turn of the century from 20th to 21st, the number of named storms that have hit the U.S. has grown — Katrina, Rita, Harvey, Maria, Irma. These named storms have left an impact. And not much has been done to help plants prepare.”

Riding Out Rita

In 2005, Hurricane Rita, a Category 3 storm, barreled over the Louisiana/Texas border and wreaked havoc on PPG Industries’ Lake Charles, La., chemicals complex. The plant got through the worst of the storm thanks to three “Ps”: preparation, perseverance and powering up again.

“The plant must understand interactions and limitations with suppliers, customers and the community when they have been threatened or struck by a hurricane,” notes Roy E. Sanders, who was PPG’s compliance team leader at the time, in a May 2007 article in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.

Many things went well for PPG. The chemical complex was shut down and secured in time, all critical safety and environmental systems performed as designed, and ride-out crews included employees with the right skill sets to ensure proper inspection of all critical equipment and systems.

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