ONE OF the lessons learned by company managers who responded to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is the importance of having a working relationship with local law enforcement and rescue units before Mother Nature goes on a rampage.

“After the storm — it's too late,” said John Little of International-Matex Tank Terminals at the Independent Liquid Terminals Association International Operating Conference and Trade Show June 5-7 in Houston.

Little was part of a panel composed of Dan Cousins of Stolt-Nielsen Transportation Group Inc, and Shaw Thompson of Oil Mop LLC. Also addressing the hurricane in a separate discussion was Admiral Robert Duncan of the US Coast Guard. All were directly involved in the recovery following the storm.

The panel members pointed out that after the storm had passed, company officials often were denied access to roads leading to the areas where their facilities were located because they did not have official identification from the entities in charge of security.

Employee safety

Duncan recommended that companies form plans to protect employees and their families in the event of recurring storms. “The first order of business is to survive, to know that your employees are safe, and then to prepare to return operations to normal as soon as possible,” Duncan said.

Cousins pointed out that although the Stolt-Nielsen terminal suffered little flooding, recovery was interrupted because employees evacuated the city before the storm and they and their families were scattered. Added to that problem were communications outages that stretched across the city.

“Two-thirds of our employees in New Orleans lost everything,” Cousins said. “Our human resources department in Houston was working around the clock to handle the problems.”

Duncan advised companies to be prepared to adjust their plans according to the circumstances, but to set priorities. When communications fail, employees must have the authority to act on those priorities.

“Be flexible,” Cousins said, noting that Stolt-Nielsen employees responding to the terminal had not only the hurricane damage to face, but the threat of disease and snakes.

Paying workers

Little pointed out that prior arrangements should be made to handle employee pay when electronic accounting programs are shutdown and banks are closed, adding that the more automated a system is, the more difficult to recover, particularly if there is no electrical service.

Decisions should be made about which employees would be expected to return to the facility after a mandatory evacuation, how food and water will be provided, and what procedures are to be followed when a full-workforce is unavailable, Little said.

In addition to plans for relocating employees and their families, managers should evaluate in advance the vulnerabilities of facilities. Duncan advised companies to anticipate what equipment might be needed following an emergency and make arrangements with suppliers in advance. He noted that during Hurricane Katrina, storage tanks were moved off their foundations from the force of the storm, spilling their products despite regulation compliance designed for such events.

Thompson said prior arrangements should be in place with emergency response contractors, as well as knowing what equipment they can make available.