2017 Storms Break Records

The 2017 hurricane season is finally behind us, but it left its mark with two Category 5 hurricanes and one Category 4 striking within weeks of each other, causing an estimated $300 billion in damage. In fact, 2017 broke records, including the strongest storm—Irma—and the longest-lasting storm, which was Hurricane Harvey. Other natural disasters in 2017 also did their share of damage, including hailstorms and 1,496 tornadoes compared to an average of 1,202.

Then there were the wildfires, which burned more than 9 million acres of land.

Highlights of 2017 are summarized below by Interstate:

Post-Harvey Lessons For Chemical Plant Managers

One of the many hazards exposed by Hurricane Harvey occurred in Crosby, Texas, when the Arkema chemical plant suffered fires and small explosions on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. Floodwaters caused the fires by penetrating the facility and shutting down the cooling systems designed to stabilize 500,000 pounds of highly flammable materials inside. This ultimately caused a mandatory evacuation for all residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant. Local news outlets reported that Arkema had no plan in place for six feet of flooding and its last risk assessment was submitted in 2013.

With Hurricane Irma being tracked at 175 miles per hour in the Caribbean, it is possible that chemical plants in the path of destruction—including Florida and the southeastern United States—may face a similar scenario. Regardless of the location of your plant, here are some tips that can help reduce potential business interruption and physical injury during a major natural disaster:

Update your risk assessment. Use Harvey as a catalyst to revisit your risk assessment, especially since new information has emerged about the potential for natural hazards or disasters that can trigger a chemical accident. As recently discussed, the best assessments do more than just feature a column of checked boxes to achieve an organization’s objectives and mitigate business interruption. “They prioritize top risks, assign risk ownership, and most critically, integrate risk management and accountability into front line business decision-making,” says Dean Simone, PWC’s U.S., Asia-Pacific, and Americas Cluster Risk Assurance Leader.

Submit the assessment to the EPA or other government-appointed body, like your state’s Commission on Environmental Quality. Your facility needs to be able to withstand significant damage to prevent further incidents and public harm. The feedback will hopefully provide some useful criticism to ensure public safety and business continuity.

According to ABC’s Houston affiliate:

In at least one of Arkema’s hazard mitigation plans filed with the federal government, plant officials acknowledged that flooding is a risk. The site sits in a FEMA “high-risk” floodplain that has flooded in the past, leading to a power failure. That time, the site only had six inches of water, a former plant worker said.

It was later revealed in an internal company timeline of events that Arkema did not move temperature-sensitive chemicals via refrigerated trucks and instead banked on its two backup systems, which failed. It seems certain that Arkema will have to consider at least six feet of floodwater when it revises its plan.

Institute an emergency plant management system. This may be included in your company’s risk assessment, and it is important that your employees also know the protocol when it comes to disaster prevention. This includes establishing the lines of authority and communication while on-site and during a catastrophe. OSHA provides guidance for chemical plant management in the event of a mass disaster.

Develop public-facing communications plans. Your communications team, led by an executive officer, should have advisory plans in place in anticipation of, during and following an emergency. The good news is that you don’t have to draft them from scratch. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers communications worksheets, templates and guides dedicated to water, sanitation and hygiene-related emergencies and outbreaks. You can customize these documents to reflect your organization’s capabilities and to alert nearby residents and businesses.

Be sure to issue advisories through all possible outlets, including social media. One thing Arkema did correctly was send press releases, incident statements and alerts via Twitter in addition to traditional outlets in order to keep as many people informed as possible.

Communicate with local authorities and emergency workers. All energy plants impact their local communities, surrounding areas and ecosystems. Your company’s hazard plans should be communicated to local fire and police departments and hospitals. This ensures that emergency workers know the potential dangers your plant faces in the event of a disaster and the steps you plan to take to mitigate them.

Combating Risks to the Electric Grid

Electricity is the foundation of society, making the electric grid one of our most critical infrastructures. It is also one of the most vulnerable, and is subject to a number of variables, according to, Lights Out: The risks of climate and natural disaster-related disruption to the electric grid, a study by students of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, funded by Swiss Re.

According to the report, in recent years there has been a trend of more natural disasters globally, with 191 natural catastrophes in 2016 and a 24% increase from the level in 2007. In the United States, 43 natural catastrophes caused huge property losses in 2016, almost double those of 2007.

Lights Out focuses on the Pacific Northwest, which is an “illustrative case study in climate and natural disaster related electric grid disruption. The region is prone not only to high-frequency, low-intensity natural disasters such as droughts and flooding, but also at risk of catastrophes like the Cascadian Subduction Zone (CSZ) event, an earthquake-tsunami combination that is expected to devastate the coastline from northern California to southern British Columbia,” according to the report.

As climate change alters the seasonality of water runoffs in the Pacific Northwest, the study found that electricity generation and the operation and maintenance of hydroelectric dams face greater challenges. What’s more, different parts of the grid are vulnerable to different perils. For example, above-ground lines are vulnerable to weather events, while underground lines are susceptible to earthquakes. In Oregon, for example:

More than 50% of substations would be damaged beyond repair in the event of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. In addition, the vulnerability of the electric grid is highly interdependent with other critical infrastructure systems, including roads, water and sewage treatment, and natural gas pipelines. In the event of a major earthquake, damage to road networks can make it impossible to repair transmission and distribution lines, thereby preventing the restoration of all other electricity-dependent lifeline services (water, sewage, telecommunications).

The costs of outages for construction and restoration of the grid are estimated to be 1.59 times higher in highly populated locations versus flat land areas with fewer inhabitants. Costs are also higher when infrastructures such as emergency roads are destroyed, which would slow down repairs to roads, in turn delaying restoration of electric power and impacting telecommunications, water and sewage services.

There may be long-term financial implications as well, as entire communities would be impacted, leading to a possible migration of residents to areas not effected by the disaster. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, the population of New Orleans dropped dramatically, and 10 years later, had only returned to 90% of its pre- 2005 levels.

Total population of New Orleans 2000-2015; Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005:

With the increase in natural disasters, the recent destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy as well as the prospect of a magnitude 9.0 Cascadia earthquake, “It is imperative that public and private sector entities explore potential solutions for combating and mitigating damage to the electrical grid and disruption from power outages.” The report urged utilities to increase the resilience of their systems in a number of ways, beginning with conducting utility vulnerability assessments to identify vulnerable infrastructure and develop resilience plans. While many utilities have taken the initial step of identifying the resilience and mitigation strategies that they intend to implement, their implementations after these assessments vary widely by utility.

Utilities have several options for hardening the resilience of their systems, depending on the specific types of natural hazards they face. For example, checking poles for rot and moving infrastructure out of flood zones and landslide-prone areas helps to maintain distribution and transmission infrastructures, keeping them from going down in regions with heavy rainfall and flood risk. Pruning trees to protect wires from falling branches is also important in regions experiencing higher intensity storms, according to the report.

Highlighted trends:

  • Climate change is causing more severe and frequent natural disasters, meaning power systems face increased strain from catastrophes.
  • The interdependence of systems creates further complications: if the electric grid is down for an extended period, collateral effects can lead to disruptions in other services such as water, sewage and telecommunications.
  • The economic implications are challenging governments and energy providers. Not only do they require pre-disaster financing provided by insurance, they must address how to make their systems more resilient to future flooding, droughts and earthquakes.

Record Snowpack Brings Mixed Blessings to California

This year’s Sierra Nevada snowpack, one of the largest on record, has brought relief to California, which is still reeling from a five-year drought followed by record flooding. The snowpack is twice its average size, with some areas as deep as 80 feet, according to NASA. But with some rivers and dams still at higher than average levels, the fear is that warm temperatures or heavy rainfall will cause the snows to melt faster and bring more flooding.

Colorado and other mountain states, which also experienced heavy snowfall this winter are also concerned with runoff issues. Canada has faced severe runoff problems, after a heat wave earlier this spring resulted in major flooding in Quebec and British Columbia, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“The real wild card is if we get hit with a big rain event,” Frank Gehrke, chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources, told the Wall Street Journal as he monitored a rushing stream in late May. “That could throw the whole system into tilt.”

The Los Angeles Times reported last month that the rapid snowmelt has kept public agencies busy managing water levels across the state’s network of reservoirs. Water district managers must conduct daily conference calls to coordinate releases of water in order to monitor the amounts released into California’s rivers, creeks, bypasses and canals. This coordination is critical, as reservoir releases impact water levels downstream for days. Since one reservoir’s release may meet with another, managers must determine how much water the rivers and levees can support before overflowing.

A number of dams levees and weirs in the state are at least 60 years old, and in some areas more than 100 years old, according to a state Legislative Analyst’s Office report. It noted that flood-management responsibilities in California are spread across more than 1,300 agencies managing an infrastructure of more than 20,000 miles of levees and channels and more than 1,500 dams and reservoirs.

One reservoir in Los Angeles, the Silver Lake Reservoir, is benefiting from the snowpack and ample water supply. No longer used to store drinking water, the reservoir was drained in 2015. It sat empty and was seen as an eyesore, until recently when it was able to be refilled ahead of schedule.

According to the L.A. Times, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council expressed its pleasure that the reservoir was refilled. The council’s co-chair, Anne-Marie Johnson, a second-generation Silver Lake resident, said she is “more than excited” that the landmark will no longer be an eyesore. “I am grateful to Mother Nature for providing us an abundance of snow. I don’t take that for granted,” she said.