Back to Basics, Emergency Preparedness and Response

Back to Basics: Hurricanes 101

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine hurricanes and how companies must prepare for the increased number of storms this season.

You need to prepare now for peak hurricane season, as forecasters have upped the number of named storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes expected this year.

On August 10, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center raised its prediction for the ongoing 2023 Atlantic hurricane season from a near-normal level of activity to an above-normal level of activity. NOAA forecasters believe ocean and atmospheric conditions like record-warm sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic may counterbalance atmospheric conditions that usually limit storm activity, like the conditions associated with an El Niño event.

The agency’s updated outlook, covering the entire 6-month hurricane season that ends on November 30, predicts there may be:

  • 14 to 21 named storms with winds of 39 miles per hour (mph) or greater,
  • 6 to 11 that could become hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or greater, and
  • 2 to 5 that could become major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or greater.

Will you be ready?

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, and the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season usually is from mid-August to late October. The Eastern Pacific hurricane season runs from May 15 to November 30.

You should also familiarize yourself with the terms used in hurricane and tropical storm forecasts. A hurricane or tropical storm “watch” means a hurricane or tropical storm is possible in your area, and a hurricane or tropical storm “warning” means a hurricane or tropical storm is expected to reach your area, usually within 24 hours.

Tropical cyclones—both hurricanes and tropical storms—can have catastrophic impacts on facilities and worksites, especially on the chemical facilities and refineries located in the Gulf Region. Hurricanes and other high-wind events can affect power grids, leading to localized or widespread power outages.

Power failures can result in the release of hazardous chemicals from chemical facilities, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) pointed out in a recent letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Hazardous chemical releases put workers and surrounding communities at serious risk.

The CSB urged FERC to address hurricanes and other high-wind extreme weather events in any future updates to its transmission system planning requirements.

The board recently closed two investigations of chemical accidents that occurred following hurricane landfalls and power outages.

Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall in southeast Texas on August 24, 2017. Southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana experienced unprecedented amounts of rainfall produced by the storm, causing significant flooding.

The Arkema, Inc., chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, lost power, as well as backup power, disabling the facility’s refrigeration system. The plant manufactures organic peroxides, which are reactive and inherently unstable. As temperatures rose at the plant, the peroxides began to spontaneously combust.

Three fires burned at the plant over the next few days, resulting in the combustion of 35,000 pounds of organic peroxide.

At the Bio-Lab, Inc., Lake Charles facility in Westlake, Louisiana, extreme winds from Category 4 Hurricane Laura on August 27, 2020, caused severe damage to the facility, even tearing the roofs off buildings storing trichloroisocyanuric acid (TCCA). 

Rainwater contacted the TCCA stored inside, starting a chemical reaction and subsequent decomposition.

In its investigation of the Bio-Lab incident, the CSB noted that Bio-Lab didn’t learn the lessons of the organic peroxide fire and decomposition incident at the Arkema facility. Bio-Lab also failed to implement industry guidance for extreme weather preparation that was updated and published after the Arkema incident.

Following the incident at the Arkema facility in Crosby, the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS), acting on recommendations from the CSB, updated its Assessment of and Planning for Natural Hazards monograph. The industry guidance contains instructions for assessing wind hazards and provides a wind hazard table for documenting wind hazard requirements at a chemical facility.

The CSB determined that Bio-Lab didn’t take the steps specified in the updated CCPS monograph, including:

  • Determining current building wind design requirements,
  • Determining the actual/existing wind design basis of its facility buildings,
  • Identifying existing safeguards, and
  • Identifying and addressing corrective actions to protect its chemicals from hurricane hazards.

The CSB wrote earlier this summer to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), urging the agency to include the location of chemical facilities and their proximity to communities in its National Response Index (NRI), a tool identifying communities most at risk from natural hazards like hurricanes and other severe weather events. In its letter to FEMA, the board also cited its investigations into the incidents at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby and the Bio-Lab Lake Charles facility in Westlake.

The board noted that chemical facilities are often located close to communities that are socially and/or economically disadvantaged—communities that may be at risk from chemical hazards resulting from an extreme weather event at a nearby facility.

Emergency planning and preparation

Even workplaces that aren’t chemical plants need to prepare for hurricanes and tropical storms.

Make sure you and your employees are trained and ready for an evacuation before a storm hits. Your insurance provider, as well as local government officials, such as the fire department, may have resources to help you prepare.

You should also familiarize yourself with emergency plans and designated shelters for your local community, as well as any warning alarms, sirens, or other signals used in a weather emergency.

Essential elements of an evacuation plan include:

  • Conditions that would trigger your evacuation plan.
  • A chain of command and assignment of emergency functions. You need to compile and regularly update a list of names, titles, departments, and telephone numbers of employees who should be contacted for emergency information or who can explain employees’ duties under the plan.
  • Procedures for employees who must remain at your facility to maintain critical operations.
  • Evacuation procedures with designated exits and routes that include procedures for evacuating employees with disabilities.
  • Procedures for accounting for evacuated customers, employees, and visitors.
  • Equipment necessary for securing your facility.

In addition to having an emergency action plan, you need to make certain decisions before a storm about business continuity and handling a storm’s impacts, including:

  • Customer or personnel casualties and injuries;
  • Damage to your equipment, inventory, structures, and systems;
  • Disruption of work; and
  • Potential loss of vital documents or records.

Your emergency action plan may also include “sheltering in place” procedures if evacuation is impossible or impractical. You would need to stockpile emergency supplies for workers who must shelter in place and have enough food, water, and other supplies for each worker to last at least 72 hours.

The American Red Cross and FEMA have recommended supply lists.

After the storm

Before emergency responders arrive, your facility’s security staff may need to perform search-and-rescue tasks. This may involve providing emergency medical services, and your staff will need first-aid training.

Employees performing search and rescue also will need a full range of personal protective equipment (PPE), including eye, hand, fall, foot, head, hearing, and respiratory protection. Full-face respirators may be appropriate protection from airborne contaminants such as cement dust or crystalline silica that can cause eye irritation.

You may contract out storm recovery and cleanup activities, but at smaller companies, the facilities staff may be assigned cleanup tasks in the immediate aftermath of a flood or hurricane.

Recovery and cleanup after a flood or hurricane can present hazards that include:

  • Carbon monoxide exposure from gasoline-powered generators;
  • Confined spaces;
  • Contaminated floodwaters; and
  • Downed or damaged trees and power lines, equipment, and vehicles.

Recovery and cleanup workers may need protective clothing in addition to the PPE used in search and rescue. However, wearing protective clothing in hot, humid conditions may put workers at risk of heat stress and illness. You will therefore also need a heat illness prevention plan.

Heavy equipment like bucket trucks, cranes, and skid-steer loaders can pose struck-by hazards. Workers clearing downed trees should wear work gloves, a hard hat, work boots, hearing protection, and eye/face protection. Workers operating chain saws should also wear protective chaps.

Assume that all floodwaters are contaminated unless proven otherwise. Flooding can dislodge chemicals previously stored aboveground, disrupt water treatment and sewage disposal systems, and cause toxic waste to overflow. Floodwaters may also be contaminated with fecal matter, and they often contain infectious organisms, including intestinal bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, and shigella; the hepatitis A virus; and typhoid, paratyphoid, and tetanus germs.

Ensure that cleanup and recovery workers are up to date on their tetanus boosters (within the past 10 years) and use waterproof boots, latex or rubber gloves, and other protective clothing.

For hand protection, workers should wear a combination of two gloves if possible: an inner cut-resistant glove and an outer disposable latex or nitrile glove, preferably with a thickness of between 4 and 8 millimeters.

Other precautions in cleanup and recovery include:

  • Ensuring workers have and use PPE, especially National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved respirators for workers handling mold-contaminated materials.
  • Assuming all power lines are live or energized. Establish a danger zone of at least 10 feet around downed lines, and only allow properly trained and equipped workers to repair electrical wires.
  • Following standard procedures for confined-space entry, trenching and excavation, fall protection, and ladder or scaffold use.
  • Strictly following all work zone safety procedures to protect workers from vehicles—the use of high-visibility clothing; proper traffic controls; and lighting, flaggers, and worksite communications.
  • Never running a generator inside a building and shutting down diesel and gas generators before refueling.

In addition to the use of PPE, proper hygiene and sanitation are essential to minimize the spread of contaminants and disease. Hand-washing is a critical component of good hygiene. If washing hands with soap and water isn’t practical, workers should be given hand sanitizer.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers should have a solution of 70 percent isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. When using hand sanitizer, all skin surfaces should be well covered, including wrists, palms, backs of hands, fingers, and under fingernails. Instruct workers to rub gently and allow hands to air dry.

Fungal growth may also be present in post-hurricane flood conditions, so respiratory protection is critical. Cleanup workers may be exposed to airborne fungi and their spores from handling decaying vegetable matter, moldy building materials, rotting waste material, or other contaminated debris.

You need to prepare now for potential storms, the impact of a hurricane or tropical storm landfall, and the aftermath.

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