The American Chemistry Council and Texas Chemistry Council on March 5 gathered stakeholders across industry and government to discuss lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey and how to be prepared for the next storm. The daylong forum, at the Houston Area Safety Council headquarters in Pasadena, Texas, included member company CEOs, regulators and other key stakeholders.
SmartBrief spoke March 22 with Cal Dooley, American Chemistry Council President and CEO, about the forum, the lessons learned and how industry can continue to improve its storm preparation, collaboration with regulators and influence needed infrastructure improvements along the Texas Gulf Coast.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
How was Hurricane Harvey different from previous storms that hit the Gulf Coast, and why was it particularly important to bring together stakeholders to discuss the storm’s lessons and effects?
I think what distinguished Harvey from a lot of other hurricanes in the Gulf Region and [what] the industry has experienced is that it was not a wind event. It really turned out to be a rain event, and a rain event that had a long duration. It was almost unprecedented that you had three days of rain, that resulted in over 50 inches of rain falling in the broader Harris County/Houston region.
A lot of the planning and the hardening of facilities was really focused on making sure they could handle very high hurricane-strength winds, and while there were some strong winds in this one, the facilities held up very well in that respect. But this was an unprecedented amount of rain in that it was at least a 500-year event with the amount of rain that fell. And I think that pointed out another challenge to the industry and some of the facilities. As well as, in the region, it brought to light some of the infrastructure inadequacies and needs that must be addressed to ensure that, if we have a future incident of this nature, we can mitigate any harm to the environment as well as human safety.
A major theme during the forum was the importance of supporting employees in dealing with Harvey. Which stories stood out to you as key takeaways for the industry?
We were fortunate that we had a number of our presidents and CEOs of some of the larger chemical companies in the United States and our ACC members that participated in the event. They, without exception, said that the responsibility for responding to an event of the nature of Hurricane Harvey or any natural disaster lie predominantly with the site manager and the people that are on the ground at the facilities, who really have their hands on the controls and can make the determinations in when a facility might have to be shut down, when employees have to be evacuated. …
Also, what I think was most striking was the stories about how some of the planning revolved around how they could account for everyone of their employees in the region.
And not only the employees that might be on site, but also the employees and their homes and their communities so that they be aware of the challenges a member of their team might be facing in terms of flooding at their house or other challenges. Almost without exception, every one of the companies cited the efforts that they put in to making sure that they could track their employees and their welfare.
Another interesting story was Covestro, where they set up a drive-through supply center for their employees, where they had the tarps, they had the disinfectants, they had food supplies — essential needs that they could distribute in a very quick order to their employees at a central site. And then you also had the stories with some of the companies such as Exxon that actually used helicopters to transport supplies into regions that were suffering from shortages of water and food.
You also had other companies that were talking about the organization of their staff into teams that went out to some of their fellow colleagues, employees’ homes that had been flooded and helped them to clean up, rip out the drywall and get them prepared for reconstruction. … Almost without exception, every company that was involved and had employees who were affected made a significant effort to either provide for mobile housing, temporary housing or rented apartments, rented hotel space to provide for their employees who were displaced in the flooding.
Another major topic of conversation throughout the forum was how companies worked with their partners in government — what examples of this stand out to you?
What I found very encouraging is that we invited the federal agencies — EPA, Homeland Security, FEMA — to participate. We also had the state regulatory agencies that were engaged and also local officials that attended and participated. And our objective there was to really try to identify where there might be [opportunities] for greater collaboration or communication or focus, identification of priorities — where we might learn how we can work even better in the future. I was really pleased that, almost without exception, every representative from the regulatory community was generally positive about the engagement that they had with industry. And I think industry’s response was also very positive about the collaboration with regulatory agencies.
I do think that there are some opportunities to improve upon some of the infrastructure needs in the region. There’s a range of projects, from the very big projects such as the coastal spine, but there’s also, I think, a need in terms of some of the management of some of the draining basins, that people realize there needs to be more work done on.
There were so many great stories, too, about how some of our companies responded to the needs of some of the local agencies and local governments. To bring in huge pumping systems to help move water, that help prevent even worse flooding in the region. …
There was a demonstration of the commitment by industry as well as the regulatory community to really work together. Not everything worked as well as it could have, but I think it wasn’t for lack of effort. People are even now, I think, able to look forward to this next hurricane season with even stronger lines of communication and relationships that were built — or were enhanced, I should say — through the event that we had in Houston.
Looking ahead to this year’s hurricane season, what are some of the top lessons that came out of the forum that you think companies should be considering?
One of the things that came up was that, even while companies had lots of supplies that were positioned, I think they recognized that they were working from past experiences and a traditional hurricane, which has high winds, which comes in and usually leaves within a day or so. It’s usually a day, day-and-a-half event, most often. And what they recognized with Hurricane Harvey was that was a three-day event, and then you had infrastructure [problems], flooding that even resulted in some areas being isolated for much longer than even that three-day period.
I think some of our companies realized they have to pre-position some basic supplies for a longer event than they had available in this instance in order to ensure that their staff onsite, at the facilities, are well-cared for and they have the confidence that they’re going to be well taken care of. What I think was also made clear is that an employee is not going to be able to provide his full focus to his job if he’s concerned about the health and safety of their families. And so making sure that there’s enhanced attention given to how do they ensure communications between families and the company, as well as making sure that the pre-positioning of supplies can be delivered to families facing a unique challenge from flooding or some other type of natural disaster.
The stories about our companies that provided the pumps — and these are huge pumps that can move a lot of water — that helped some of our local communities. But there was also talk of some of the companies that provided engineers to get some of the sanitation systems back up and running, and water systems back up and running. The contributions that we made in a couple of locations were so well-appreciated, there might even be some opportunities for us to build upon that in terms of our preparation for events in the future.
It’s been a couple of weeks since the forum. What has the response been like from companies and other stakeholders?
What I’m hearing from the members of ACC is … “We gotta do more things like this,” and really be very proactive and try to create constructive forums where we bring a diverse constituency together to really talk about what the industry is committed to, learn what we could be doing better and looking for how we can even work better today. To me, that was our objective going in, and I felt pretty good about how it played out. I felt like we delivered on that.
The forum was notable for bringing together companies, regulators at all levels, and industry groups such as ACC. What do you see as the ideal role for ACC in helping the Texas Gulf Coast chemical industry be ready for future storms?
There’s a couple of roles that we can play. In the short term, our whole Responsible Care program really contributes to a culture [of safety] within our companies. … The role that we can play in helping to continue to build and cultivate very constructive relationships with the regulatory community — both locally, regionally, state and federal — is also very important in terms of demonstrating the commitment of the industry to being a good citizen, and a constructive partner with the regulatory agencies.
And then when we look on longer-term, that’s where our relationships with federal and state officials, which is really more focused on a lot of the infrastructure needs. We’re playing a role in trying to be a partner with the Texas Gulf Coast region and trying to build support within the administration and Congress for some infrastructure investments and the coastal spine and other projects that can enhance the ability of that region to manage the impact of natural disasters such as hurricanes.
And those are all important roles that we can play that add value to the community, and to our industry, and to the health and safety of our communities in which we operate.