In the aftermath of every large incident, we should take time to determine what really happened. What did we do right? What did we do wrong and what could we have done better. - Wikipedia Image of Hurricane Harvey

In the aftermath of every large incident, we should take time to determine what really happened. What did we do right? What did we do wrong and what could we have done better.

Wikipedia Image of Hurricane Harvey

During the month of October 2017, two hurricanes, Harvey and Irma made landfall on the highly industrialized Texas Gulf coast within days of each other. Never in modern history has such a cataclysmic event descended upon an area so vital to the American economy.

The destruction left in the wake of these storms has been unequaled in any memory and many were saying that recovery would take months and even years to accomplish. These people badly underestimated the stamina and resilience that is characteristic of Americans in general and those who live on the Gulf coast in particular as well as their ability and willingness to mobilize whatever resources were needed to mitigate damage and alleviate distress and suffering.  

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It brought out the best in American culture; the first responders of all types; military, law enforcement, fire and emergency services and those staffing the medical care facilities performed their duties in a way that has not been seen before and they continued to do so as long as there was a need.

The “Cajun Navy,” volunteers risked their boats and other equipment and even their own personal safety to rescue those trapped by rising flood waters. There was the brewery that suspended beer production to produce canned potable water; the restaurant owner who fed rescuers free of charge; the rancher who showed up with his boat and had the forethought to bring along six hundred gallons of fuel to keep the volunteer fleet running.

There was the large discount chain that sent literally hundreds of truckloads of supplies and did it so quickly that the drivers actually had to wait for the flood waters to recede somewhat before they could deliver their loads to the points of need. At least one of the national cell phone providers waived all fees and even provided phones to the evacuees in order that they could communicate with their families.

We saw owners of undamaged structures opening their doors to any and all who were in need of shelter and we will never know how many volunteer meals were served, or how much clothing and how many items of personal necessity were provided to those who were flooded out; paid for “out-of-pocket” by more fortunate fellow citizens. These were just some of the incidents that the public knew about; we will never know how many incidents of one person helping his neighbor on a one to one basis actually occurred but it is safe to say that “their name was legion.”

We will never know just how much unsolicited time and treasure was contributed but we do know that we saw America at its best; stepping up to the plate to help when help was needed. One cannot help but feel a great sense of pride in what was accomplished so quickly by so many.

Unfortunately, it was also “the worst of times.” We saw greed in the form of price gouging, fraudulent contracting and substandard work, looting, theft and the wanton destruction of property but these incidents were greatly overshadowed by the genuine concern and generosity of the vast majority of our citizens and the “long arm of the law” who eventually brought many, if not most, of those racketeers who perpetrated and profited from such actions to an accounting, as is only just.

Now, the water has largely receded, the “Cajun Navy” has returned to port, the television cameras have moved on to other news and the debris is slowly being removed. So, what is left? Hard work, finger pointing and, most importantly, lessons learned.

In the aftermath of any major catastrophe it is all too easy to find fault; fault with anybody or anything, just so long as we can fix blame. The actual truth is often quite different and before we race to judgment we should take time to determine what really happened. What did we do right? What did we do wrong and what could we have done better. When we do this we usually find that our performance may not have been as dismal as we might at first have supposed. Let us examine what we now know happened and see first off, what we seem to have done right.

In the first place we, government and civilian alike, assumed a prompt proactive stance. Government, local, state and federal, declared a state of emergency before the storm made landfall. This allowed the federal Emergency Management protocols to be activated before the storm, actually hit.

Assets were deployed in advance of the predicted landfall in anticipation of post storm needs. Additional fuel supplies for emergency generators in essential facilities such as hospitals and emergency services were brought in prior to the expected onslaught. Fuel for ambulances, fire apparatus and, police cars were procured and safely stored out of harm’s way.

Transformers, poles, wire, line insulators and switch-gear were stockpiled by the power providers as well as the telecommunications companies. Buildings designated as shelters were stocked with water and nonperishable food items. Critical medical supplies such as insulin, blood, parenteral fluids and dialysis packs were stockpiled in locations known to be well above flood level.

Provision was made for accommodating essential personnel and in some cases for their families for the duration of the emergency. In short, we saw it coming and we were about as prepared as it was possible to be.  

Evacuations were ordered and, while no one could actually be forced to leave, most people heeded the warnings. Some small hospitals, nursing homes and similar facilities were also evacuated.

This was done in a timely manner giving medical personnel opportunity to arrange for the orderly transfer of patients and their records to facilities equipped to take care of their unique needs such as those presented by patients requiring dialysis, heart monitoring and defibrillation or other necessary life support measures. Expectant mothers who were at or near term were also evacuated to locations where they could give birth in a clean, safe and calm environment should the need arise.

All of these measures helped to save lives and as a result the number of fatalities was low when compared to other similar disasters such as Katrina, Ike or, for that matter the 1900 storm that nearly destroyed Galveston. Unfortunately the list of those killed included at least one Houston law enforcement officer who was drowned as he attempted to find a passable route to get to his assigned post.

The dedication shown by the staffs and employees at the hospitals and ancillary facilities that make up the Texas Medical Center deserves special mention; these people were beyond belief.

Not only the medical staff but the technical people who kept the generators humming and the pumps working so that medical care could be available as needed. The pilots of the life flight helicopters and the ambulance drivers worked non-stop for more than 24 hours in some cases. Nobody asked “are we done yet?” It was “where are we needed now?” 

Facilities such as the George R. Brown Convention Center and the NRG stadium in Houston were designated to serve as shelters ahead of the storm’s arrival. These were opened as needed along with many churches, schools and community centers in outlying communities.

They had been stocked with necessary supplies of water, food and clothing to meet the needs of those who evacuated with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs (and these were usually wet and torn to the point of being almost useless).

Volunteer groups as well as faith-based organizations such as the United Methodist Committee of Relief (UMCOR), the Salvation Army, the Baptist Men along with countless others answered the call, each with their own unique contributions that melded together into a contiguous whole, dedicated to one purpose, the relief of distress and as possible the alleviation of suffering.

In the second place it must be accepted as fact that in situations such as this we do what we can with we have at the moment. These are not the times for “coulda’, shoulda’, woulda’.”

When Harvey hit the Houston region industry was faced with a major problem. This area accounts for a large proportion (as much as 30% according to some sources) of the petroleum refining capacity of the United States; any interruption of this activity would have a major impact on our economy through increased fuel prices and, potentially our ability to respond to the incident.

As a result, arrangements were made to release petroleum from the strategic reserves, if needed. Again, we did what we could with what was available at the moment. However, the ability of our industrial plants to cope with severe weather events may have been underestimated; even in the face of an event of unprecedented proportions, a mechanism to deal with the situation was in place and functioning in the event of need.

Many of the problems arising from Harvey did not have a “good” or “correct” solution; only a choice among a number of “evils.” The situation involving the Addicks Reservoir offers a case in point. This reservoir was constructed by the U.S. Army Engineers as a flood control measure. It impounds water which is eventually released into Buffalo Bayou.

When Harvey hit the area the reservoir filled up and was in danger of failure. Had this occurred, the flood water would have inundated a large part of the downtown area of Houston. The alternative was to release water into an already full Buffalo Bayou and perforce prolong the flooding of those neighborhoods adjacent to this channel.

The Army Corps of Engineers, who built and operates the reservoir, found itself on the horns of a dilemma. Neither course of action was what one would classify as “desirable” or “correct” but something would have to be done or the dam would fail and a “de facto” decision would have been made. The Corps officials made the decision to release the water slowly into the bayou. Flooding the adjacent neighborhoods was not a “good” solution but was a lot better than the alternative.

The same dilemma confronted those concerned with chemical releases from inundated facilities. Many of the chemical installations in the area contained hazardous materials, each presenting unique properties which render them dangerous to the surrounding neighborhood and indeed, often to the entire community. The Arkema chemical plant, located in Crosby, TX is a case in point.

This facility formulates and produces organic peroxides used in the manufacture of plastics. These materials are fairly benign so long as they are kept at low temperatures in refrigerated warehouses or transported under refrigerated conditions. If the temperature of these peroxides is allowed to rise above a critical level they become unstable and will either ignite and burn spontaneously or explode, depending upon the amount of pressure present in the closed container and other factors such as exposure to shock.

The plant management was aware of the hazardous nature of these materials and had back-up generators on the site in anticipation of a power failure. These generators appear to have functioned until rising flood water eventually caused them to fail. According to some reports additional generators were obtained and brought on site but continued flooding rendered these inoperable also.

At this point, workers transferred the unstable materials to van trailers equipped with diesel powered refrigeration. Some of these eventually failed also. Soon after these units failed a fire broke out and a number of “pops” were heard indicating explosive rupture of some of the closed containers. At this point the decision was made to control the spread of the fire and allow the material to burn off.

Now, comes the finger pointing and the awarding of blame. Many of the residents of the area were upset that the air quality was endangered. One lady in particular was rescued from her home by a member of the “Cajun Navy.” As she was helped out of the boat (on national TV) she began loudly demanding to see her lawyer and berating the company for its carelessness and the ”government” for allowing such “dangerous chemicals” in her neighborhood if they knew about the hazardous characteristics of the materials in question.

She accused them of not caring about human life and the health of the residents who were forced to breathe the contaminated air. Of course the news people failed to mention that many of the volunteers operating the “Cajun Navy” were employed in those same plants and that they were the source of a major portion of the livelihood of the surrounding community.

The question that should be asked at this point is not “what should we have done?” but what could we have done given the situation at the time.” The Arkema plant is located within the one hundred year flood plain, no question about that; but so are most, if not all, such installations. Why is this so? It is a matter of simple logistics.

Chemical plants must bring in raw materials to operate and they must ship out their finished products. Both these needs are addressed by locating the works in or near a port or other transportation facility and, of course such locations are at or near sea level, hence the susceptibility to flooding during major storms such as Harvey and Irma. This having been said; it is to be expected that those responsible for the construction and, eventually, the operation of the facility will take the possibility of flooding into consideration when planning for the future.

The designers of the plant facility had obviously considered the possibility of power outages and included back-up generators in the ultimate construction plans. In addition when it became apparent that these back-up generators might be inundated and disabled, trailers equipped with diesel driven refrigerating units were obtained and loaded with the temperature sensitive materials.

The presence of the back-up power supply and the deployment of the refrigerated trailers would tend to support the claim that the plant management was aware of the situation and had taken measures to mitigate it.

As Harvey approached, the plant management was confronted by the need to decide on a course of action regarding their inventory of hazardous chemicals. Basically they had two choices either to arrange safe on-site storage and leave the materials in place or to move them off site to higher ground out of reach of flood water.

At first blush it might seem that this was a “no-brainer”: move the dangerous commodities out of harm’s way but there are several issues that arise which must be considered prior to any attempt to move the materials in question. The first question that comes to mind is when was it determined that something needed to be done with regard to the materials in question? Was it a day or two prior to the landfall or was it after the storm surge was beginning to build up?

If the answer to this question is “a day or so” before the storm actually arrived then movement off-site might have been a viable possibility. If, the answer is “as the flood water was rising” then the option of removing the materials becomes less viable.

Removal, in this case, would not simply be a matter of loading up the containers and driving away. Where would the trucks go? Who would be willing to have these commodities on their property? What would the liabilities of a third party be? Who would be responsible for maintenance of the refrigeration equipment (fueling, checking engine oil etc.)? What reaction could be expected from those adjacent to the location where the trailers were parked? What are the conditions of the roads which must be traversed by the trucks?

Do we really want to move trailers laden with temperature (and possibly shock) sensitive materials over roads and highways clogged with persons attempting to evacuate the area? If the move was successful, would the new site be accessible to fire and/or emergency equipment and would those responding to an incident be equipped to deal with it?

These are but a few of the questions that would have to be answered before removal could actually be accomplished. If, on the other hand, the chemicals in question were kept on site several of these issues would be resolved; there would be no third party involvement and no new issues, such as public safety, connected with their presence on the property. With these and certainly other things in mind, management made the decision to attempt on site storage.

This decision had a number of things to recommend it: there was no need to move trucks laden with hazardous chemicals over crowded roads; there were no issues connected with the presence of these chemicals on another property and there was no additional exposure to liability. There was also the availability of personnel trained and equipped to handle these commodities in the event of an incident.

The plan most likely would have worked except for one little detail: From what could been seen in the photographs released by the news media, the trailers (at least some of them) appear to have been equipped with refrigeration units mounted underneath the trailer box rather than having the refrigerating equipment placed high on the front of the trailer box.

Consequently, these units were much more susceptible to flooding than would have been the case if they had been equipped with front mounted equipment which could have continued to function even though the flood water rose another five or six feet. No doubt plant management utilized what was available at the time and they asked for, and received, “refrigerated trailers” but in retrospect, a more specific specification might have been helpful.

Regardless of the foregoing, the trailers were obtained (probably no mean feat in and of itself at the time), parked on the Arkema property and loaded with the chemicals in question. As the storm surge moved inland the rising waters disabled those refrigeration units that were mounted below the trailer floor and allowed the temperature within those boxes to rise. Once this happened there wasn’t much to do other than clear the area.

Apparently the containers ruptured (the “pops” that were reported) and the contents began to burn. Thus (again according to the media reports) we had a fire as opposed to a massive explosion. To be sure, the smoke and vapors released by the fire were noxious and possibly toxic but in the end they did not pose a major clean up problem as did some of the other less publicized spills of commodities such as gasoline which,in a congested area, would leave behind a large are of contamination which would require a difficult clean up after the storm had passed.

In any event the chemicals were eliminated. There was, according to reports, no loss of life nor were there any significant injuries. Considering the prevailing conditions, this in itself, is certainly a victory.

Arkema management has been somewhat criticized for not attempting to neutralize or inert their sensitive chemicals prior to the arrival of Hurricane Harvey. Whether or not this criticism is justified is, of course, debatable but this option of “neutralizing and/or inerting” is not without its potential problems.

We are not talking “small potatoes” here; we are dealing with fairly large quantities of reactants. The first question to be answered concerns the nature and identity of the inerting or neutralizing agent. Assuming that this reagent is non-hazardous and available (not necessarily true), we need to give some consideration to the reaction itself. Most neutralization reactions liberate a significant quantity of heat.

In the case of laboratory quantities this is not a problem but when we are dealing with a semi-trailer load of reactant it could become a major concern. Another point to be considered is the nature of the reaction product(s) and their ultimate disposal. What should be done with the residue remaining after neutralization or inerting of the sensitive chemicals has been accomplished?

Remember, none of the hazardous material has been disposed of; in fact there will probably be a somewhat increased quantity that must be dealt with. Again, regulatory constraints and obligations will have to be considered; this takes time and there is a hurricane moving down on the area. Can the neutralization or inerting be completed before the storm reaches the plant site?

The bottom line in this case is that, given the information available at the time and the circumstances extant at the moment, the decision to allow the hazardous materials to remain on site and ultimately burn was not a bad one. Granted, the outcome was not as benign as one would have liked but this is usually the case when dealing with this type of incident.

What the ultimate outcome would have been had management chosen to neutralize or inert the material instead of allowing it to burn is, of course, a matter of conjecture and will remain so. The outcome was largely determined by the conditions and circumstances that existed at the moment. Those responsible did their best with what was available in terms of time, personnel, facilities and equipment.   .

Let us consider the outcomes of this decision. In the first place the hazardous materials were rendered harmless I.e. destroyed, by burning. True, there was a temporary adverse impact on the air quality but the winds inherent in the storm rapidly dissipated the contamination. There was no residue remaining to foul the terrestrial environment necessitating a massive clean-up effort with the attendant need to dispose of the contaminated debris.

The damage to the facility was confined to a few trailers burned and there were no reported injuries or fatalities. Considering the fact that we were dealing with two major hurricanes (in the case of the U.S. Virgin Islands, three.) occurring back to back, the biggest such disaster in recorded history, Arkema didn’t do too badly. Are there things that they would do differently if they had the opportunity? Certainly.

Were there mistakes made? Of course; but in the main, property damage was relatively minor. Large scale chronic environmental damage was avoided and there were no reported fatalities or significant injuries. Not a bad score sheet for such an event.

One cannot help but wonder what the outcome would have been if Arkema management had gone with the neutralization or inerting option. It might have been successful but again it might not. The refrigeration idea worked well enough until the water reached the diesel engines.

If the trailers had been equipped with front mounted compressors instead of units mounted under the box floors they could have sustained much deeper flood waters and could possibly have survived unscathed. Lesson learned: Next time use trailers with front mounted refrigerating units.

When all is said and done, the Arkema management appears to have made a “good faith effort” to protect the environment as well as the surrounding neighborhood. They did not create any large amount of hazardous debris or residue which required specialized clean up and disposal. In fact the incident produced relatively little debris of any sort.

The complaints from residents about the Arkema incident as well as others point to a chronic problem endemic in our industrialized society; namely that of development of adjacent property after the industrial community has become established.

The Scenario goes something like this: “Company A” builds a plant or factory at an isolated location to avoid problems with traffic, noise and pollution by whatever noxious or toxic effluents might be the course of their process. The construction of the facility requires that utilities (electricity, water, sewer telephone and gas) be brought into the area.

Additional facilities are now constructed given the availability of essential utilities. Once this has occurred developers begin subdividing the adjacent property and marketing home sites. The lots sell and the area becomes populated with residents who may in fact work in the newly constructed plants or factories. This saves them a long commute and reduces transportation expense.

This is a fine idea so long as nothing happens, but when there is some sort of incident at the plant site the chorus of complaints is deafening. Now the plant was in place before the home owner arrived and these prospective buyers should have exercised “due diligence” when making their purchase, but they didn’t.

We see this problem in the form of unhappy residents living in neighborhoods adjacent to  airports where they perceive the noise of planes taking off as being problematic. Other complaints are heard from those who reside near various manufacturing facilities such as refineries chemical works.

We saw it at Texas City in 1947 with the explosion of ammonium nitrate. We saw it again in the unfortunate incident in Bhopal, India where some 3000 fatalities occurred in December of 1984 when the Union Carbide pesticide plant released 42 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas into the atmosphere.

Congested residential neighborhoods simply cannot safely coexist in close proximity to industrial installations. Perhaps local planning and zoning authorities should begin to assess these problems and possibly require a “no residence zone” as a buffer around facilities that have the potential to give rise to complaints or cause injuries.

At the very least these governmental entities should make certain that parties desirous of moving to areas adjacent to installations that have this potential to create an unfavorable environment thoroughly understand the possibility of incidents and that they are aware of this potential.

Had such a buffer been in place in Houston along Buffalo Bayou below the Addicks Reservoir the property loss, to say nothing of the discomfort and inconvenience of the residents, would have been greatly reduced. The same could be said for the industrialized areas with facilities similar to Arkema.

The geographic growth of metropolitan areas, otherwise known as “Urban Sprawl” is a fact of life and the adverse impact of it on industry as well as residents has become a major problem for our society. It is not noticed until something goes wrong and then it is too late to do anything but pick up the pieces.

Perhaps it is time to remember P5 “Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance” with regard to dealing with urban sprawl and the interfacing of industrial activity with commercial and residual neighborhoods. The problem is not going to go away and as urban populations increase the need for well-founded regulation to protect both industry and residents continues to grow in urgency.

Perhaps an additional “take home lesson” from Harvey and Irma is the need to stop “kicking the can down the road” and enact some meaningful legislation to address the problem before disaster strikes.