FocusFive years later, US chems use lessons learned from Katrina

27 August 2010 22:29  [Source: ICIS news]

Hurricane Katrina in 2005By Ben DuBose

HOUSTON (ICIS)--The US chemical industry has drafted studies, learned lessons and taken action since Hurricane Katrina struck nearly five years ago, leaving it  in much better shape for the next time a storm strikes, sources said on Friday.

On the morning of 29 August 2005, Katrina roared ashore near the Louisiana-Mississippi border with 125 mile/hour (200 km/hour) winds. The storm pummelled offshore and coastal energy sites in the region, disrupting production for weeks and, in some cases, months.

Louisiana Chemical Association (LCA) president Dan Borne described the ordeal as critical for the chemical industry, but said he was pleased with the overall response.

“Our chemical plants that were in harm’s way deserve a lot of credit for taking their operations down, riding out the storms and restarting them without any environmental incidents, fatalities or major injuries to personnel,” he said.

Winds from the storm battered the New Orleans area, eventually pushing water from Lake Pontchartrain toward the city, toppling levees and causing massive flooding to about 80% of the city.

Overall, about 1,800 people died during Katrina and more than 1m were displaced from their homes. Total damages and costs from the storm were about $125bn (€99bn).

In response, Louisiana State University (LSU) teamed with several public, private and academic groups in the state to create a Business Emergency Operations Center (BEOC).

The LCA is included in the panel for the centre, which opened this year and should serve as a major advance for emergency planning, management and response for industries throughout the state, Borne said.

For chemical companies in particular, the most critical emergency issues during Katrina were not wind and water damage to the plants themselves, but instead logistics and communication as the region dealt with catastrophic effects.

“The real challenge faced in the storms of 2005 was not the availability of crude or products, but the logistics system – pipeline, waterborne shipping, and trucking and the power necessary for these systems to operate,” a spokesperson with ExxonMobil said.

Less than a month after Katrina struck southeast Louisiana, Hurricane Rita hit the extreme southwest Louisiana with winds of 115 miles/hour. Both storms were considered major hurricanes and struck at the heart of the US petrochemical industry.

While not all inland plants suffered significant damage, effects from power and natural gas outages as well as closed and flooded roads were widespread following the storms.

As such, regional producers made changes to hurricane season practices that remain in effect in 2010. The LCA published a “Lessons Learned” study on the 2005 season, in which local producers noted the changes they would make.

“Know that the outside infrastructure will not recover as quickly as the plant, so modify plant procedures to work around the obstacles,” one producer said.

Other producers argued for diversity in shipping services as well as natural gas suppliers, to reduce odds of having supply completely cut off.

“Seek immediate waivers on highway size and weight load restrictions if rail and/or waterborne commerce is interrupted, and if what you ship can be transshipped by truck rather than by train or water,” a producer said.

“If you have only one natural gas pipe coming into the plant, you could be curtailed or completely cut off,” said another producer. “Prudent planning argues for more than one natural gas supplier having a pipe into your plant.”

ExxonMobil said that in the wake of 2005, establishing alternative supplies – both for product and feedstock – had also become a priority for its US operations.

Such concerns have already been tested for Gulf producers in 2010. The BP oil spill off the Louisiana coast prompted fears that barge shipments could be disrupted, forcing companies to find alternative shipping.

Even at present, Borne said the oil spill cleanup meant that emergency services available during prior storms might not be as accessible.

Offshore, the American Petroleum Institute (API) said the 2005 season helped scientists discover that the central Gulf was more prone to hurricanes because it acts as a gathering spot for warm currents that can strengthen a storm.

As such, the API altered its recommended practices for offshore operations, including locating jack-up rigs on more stable areas of the sea floor and positioning platform decks higher above the sea surface.

Aside from logistics and plant practices, producers also cited basic employee communication as a priority, with downed phone lines posing problems following Katrina and Rita.

Several producers said they had secured additional satellite phones, while others bought cell phones with non-local area codes, according to the LCA.

The LCA noted that text messaging was successful in some instances, leading some chemical companies to turn to written plans. Shell and Chevron each designed hurricane-related feeds on Twitter in 2009 - following 2008's Hurricane Ike - to more quickly spread information.

Those methods could be tested in the not-too-distant future. Hurricane Danielle and Tropical Storm Earl remain active in the Atlantic, while a tropical wave to the southeast of Earl appears likely to develop into Tropical Storm Fiona by Saturday, according to the US National Hurricane Center.

The 2010 Atlantic hurricane season lasts through 30 November, with the period from mid-August until early October as its peak. Meteorologists are predicting an above average storm season.

($1 = €0.79)

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By: Ben DuBose
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