Hurricane Recovery for Refineries – Friday in the Field

Paul Johnson
We are now in the peak of hurricane season and we’ve seen multiple storms touch down in the Gulf Coast region. With nearly a third of the U.S. oil production coming from this area, it is essential that all the oil and chemical refineries are prepared for these potentially catastrophic events.

Tana Burhans: It’s been a few weeks since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. I understand you are working the relief efforts for a refinery outside of Houston. How is that going? 

That’s correct. I’m working on a full flood restoration at a refinery in Beaumont, TX, alongside the Crisis Disaster Team. It’s been a crazy time in the area, me and my family were stuck in our house for three days, with water rising up the driveway and nearly reaching the house. Some of my neighbors had flooding in their homes and once we were able to leave we got to work helping with recovery efforts within the community. I wasn’t able to get to the refinery in Beaumont until Labor Day as a number of major roads were flooded and in-passible even in my truck.

Right now, we’re assessing what will needs to be done. That’s what I’ve been doing this morning; inspecting the damage, evaluating it, and then working out the scope of work so I can get contractors involved with putting the costs and schedules together. After that, we’ll take all that to the client to get approval and we can begin the remedial work.

TB: What is the extent of the damage?

At this particular site, flooding has been the main issue. We had nearly 47 inches of rain, so there was extensive flooding in certain areas. Some of the buildings date back to the 1930s and some of the trailer units are 15 years old. Several roofs on the trailers simply couldn’t stand up to that magnitude of water that came down. I’m evaluating which ones we can repair and which ones should be replaced immediately.

All the of the major oil companies have adopted a similar protocol that has been put in place to prepare for major catastrophes...

Another concern is the high temperatures down here. Given the amount of flooding we are experiencing, there’s already been some mold building up. That might seem less damaging than a collapsed roof but like termites, rust and other “small” issues, this can cause major damage over time if not addressed as soon as possible. The client is very environmentally conscious, understanding their responsibility as leaders in the Energy Sector, so we have a team of environmental experts that will be assessing the mold. Working together with them, I will help to ascertain what we should be doing for remediation for the mold.

TB: What is your expected timeline for a full recovery?

It’s a little soon to say, our first concern is always to ensure that the well-being of our staff is taken care of. We typically work on a 30-day policy for essential operations to resume and go from there. All things considered, we are in good shape. Obviously, the flood damage is an inconvenience but we suffered only minimal wind damage and didn’t have any buildings collapse. Considering the magnitude of the storm, we’ve been lucky. Or perhaps luck isn’t the word, but prepared.

TB: How did you prepare in the weeks leading to the hurricane?

Basically, all the of the major oil companies have adopted a similar protocol that has been put in place to prepare for major catastrophes. When a possible hurricane is expected to hit the Gulf Coast there are extensive guidelines that must be followed. All staff located on site are trained and understand their role in this protocol. Various communications and procedures kick into action for each stage, from the moment the first reports of a potential hurricane come in, through touch down. There is also planned monthly maintenance throughout the season to ensure that all the necessary supplies and equipment are inspected and tested prior to and during the hurricane season. To give you an idea of the items in the maintenance program, they vary from water and bedding for essential personnel, to hammers, nails, water pumps, portable generators and gas.

Think of your home and how much you’d need to protect in the event of a natural disaster. Maybe you have a plan in place already. We do the same thing at refineries, the last list that I came up with for a major oil company contained 256 line items that had to be checked, refreshed, replaced and tested.

TB: You’ve worked with hurricane recovery efforts before, what’s changed in the process since then?

Yes, I have. I was heavily involved in both preparation and recovery when Hurricane Ike struck back in 2008. Our processes were similar but have certainly shifted, based on real life experiences. After each hurricane, there are lessons learned. You’ll see that reflected in the procedures and protocols; there will always be revisions and improvements to be made.

Right now, for instance, at this site, the whole area here of Beaumont lost sewage water handling due to the city’s major pumping system failing. This was completely out of our control and no one could use any of the bathrooms on-site. To accommodate all the employees and restoration workers working at the site, portaloos and trailers with showering facilities were set up in a number of locations. This was a new and unexpected issue, that we will incorporate into our protocols to be prepared going forward.

The potential for extreme weather in this region needs to be taken into account at the design stage of these facilities...

TB: Harvey was one the strongest hurricanes to hit the area in a very long time. There’s talk of storms like this becoming the norm. Do you see the need for a major push to upgrade facilities that are in the south?

Yes. Nearly a third of the U.S. oil production comes from this area, which is in the line of fire during hurricane season. Not keeping the structures up to code could lead to truly disastrous consequences. Floating roof oil storage tanks, for instance, are vulnerable to heavy water pooling on top, which can force the walls to rupture and lead to a major oil spill. I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the oil companies to do some work, especially on the oil tanks at the refineries, to keep them in good working condition with regular planned maintenance inspections, and enforced to withstand future weather events.

TB: How can these facilities be built to withstand changing weather situations?

The potential for extreme weather in this region needs to be taken into account at the design stage of these facilities. All new buildings are now built to a higher wind grade, or maximum speed of wind that they can withstand. In the past, they were expected to be able to withstand 90 miles per hour but, after superstorms have become more frequent, that had to be elevated to a standard 130 miles per hour.

I was speaking with a colleague about a refinery that I’m not involved with, where Harvey left them with major flooding in a basement of the main operations building, which happens to house all the main electrical infrastructure system for the facility. As a result of this seemingly insignificant detail, they were unable to get the electricity turned back on for days while the water dissipated. Clearly, a design that doesn’t account for a region’s weather patterns can result in an additional disaster, in the face of a natural one. As the storms in the south become more and more unpredictable, we need to keep improving our designs to stay ahead of them.

TB: How would you say refineries could learn from Harvey and prepare for the future at their existing facilities?

Well, I think better maintenance of the overall infrastructure on the site can make all the difference. Generally, in construction, maintenance can be overlooked because it’s not as glamourous as building a whole new structure. But as these storms get stronger and potentially more damaging, I think diligent maintenance will be an area where companies can save money and most importantly keep their employees safe in the long run.