Surviving the storm

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

Handling Hurricane Harvey: Joan Cordiner, Technical and Change Manager, Syngenta Houston speaks to Helen Tunnicliffe

HURRICANE HARVEY was the first major hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane system, passing through Caribbean Windward Islands on 18 August as a tropical storm, before ramping up to a category 4 hurricane over the Bay of Campeche, hitting Texas on 26 August. It dumped more than 1 m of rain in a four-day period on many areas, causing widespread flooding in Texas and Louisiana, and is the wettest hurricane on record in the US. More than 70 people died as a result.

I’m sure you will all have heard about the refineries and chemical sites that were shut down as a result of Hurricane Harvey, but what was it like to be caught up in all that chaos?

Joan Cordiner, an IChemE Fellow (and recently elected to Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering, RAEng, p55), is the technical and change manager at Syngenta’s Houston manufacturing site, which produces the fungicide active ingredient chlorothalonil and its intermediate, as well as some formulated products. Cordiner oversees engineers in process, automation and control, manufacturing, IT and process safety, and looks after the quality control department.

Syngenta’s Houston site was badly flooded, and Cordiner agreed to speak to The Chemical Engineer about the situation.

When were you first warned of the approaching hurricane? How much warning did you get?

This was an unusual situation. First reports showed “remnants” of a tropical storm. Then two days before Harvey hit, our HSE department received information this was going to be a major flood event for the Houston area. We immediately activated our contingency plan.

What preparations were made?

Our plant, like many in the Houston Ship Channel, is accustomed to preparing for hurricanes and has contingency policies and procedures to safeguard our employees and operations. This includes buying food and supplies for employees who are likely to get flooded in (and did) at the plant for 4–5 days. Procedures also cover essential and nonessential staff needed to protect the processes and secure any damage that might happen with the storm. We did shut down safely, as appropriate, “battening down the hatches” to ensure everything was tied down. Scaffolds were secured and left standing. Vehicles and other moveable items were moved to high locations. We asked all employees to make sure their supervisor had a good contact number for them and reminded staff about the company’s emergency line used to communicate updates. The leadership team began meeting twice a day before the storm to plan, and then continued those daily two meetings through the storm and in the few days after. During the process, we issued 48 weather updates to plant employees with detailed information and what to expect. Our mutual-aid partners, the Texas Chemical Council, and local and federal agencies sent key information to the plant’s leadership team to act on to protect our personnel.

Please explain for a chemical engineering audience how an emergency shutdown in the face of a hurricane differs from a standard shutdown, eg for maintenance?

We have normal and emergency shutdown procedures that are risk assessed and refined after use. All of our operating personnel are trained and certified in these procedures. Our process is very complex. In this case, we weren’t expecting high winds but were expecting significant rainfall of more than 20” (0.5 m). It ended up raining more than 50”, so it was much worse than predicted. This made starting up our process much harder and involved a great deal more maintenance work.

Cut off: For many staff, it took days just to be able to drive out of their neighbourhoods

What were the immediate consequences of the hurricane for the plant?

Since we experienced significant flooding, we had a great deal of water to process through our water treatment and stormwater treatment system – no one designs a system for a flood event that happens once in 800 years. It requires careful managing and close contact with regulatory agencies. Many of the vendors that process and accept our wastewater off site were also flooded. Our largest issue was the people who had been on site for four days, working in shifts and sleeping on the cots provided. We needed to get extra supplies to the site and medication for one employee. This planned and carefully- managed process involved figuring out how to get the items; who could get where in the city; and how to get back onto the site, which was largely cut off from all the flooding.

Every day, as the event unfolded and different parts of the city were flooding at different times, we were contacting our staff. We wanted to ensure that any personnel who needed rescuing would be, and that we could get them out of shelters and back to their family, friends and colleagues.

We tried to find who could get to the site to relieve some of the staff who had been at work for days. For many of our staff, it took days just to be able to drive out of their neighbourhoods. Even when they could get out, they couldn’t get far. All the stores were closed, and no one could buy food or gas. The few supermarkets that were open were running with minimal staff; this created long lines taking 4–6 hours.

On the first day the plant opened back up to non-essential staff, we were amazed that nearly 50% of our employees made it in, even though some areas were still flooded, due to overflowing rivers and reservoirs with controlled releases going on. Five of my staff and I decided to get everyone a needed hot meal for lunch. Everyone was working so hard, and many hadn’t had a hot meal in days. We drove to six local restaurants, begging them to make as many meals as possible with an hour’s notice. We managed to feed over 200 people. It was great to see folks enjoying eating together and having a chance to talk about what they had experienced, and check on each other.

More than 50 of our site employees had their house and/or their cars flooded. A group of volunteers helped me put together 100 buckets loaded with cleaning and safety supplies. We had lots of volunteers driving, and in a few cases kayaking or boating, supplies out to affected colleagues. The conversation that first day back at work was amazing. A number of people were going straight out after work with their boats to rescue people from newly-flooded areas; others were going to help gut colleagues’ homes and salvage their belongings. For me and many others, there was a feeling we were spared and we needed to help those around us. It’s well-known that the large relief agencies and official systems that rescue and help people take time to staff up and marshal their logistics. Everywhere people were doing what was needed, and there was an incredible esprit de corps – just people helping people.

We also received a list of immediate needs from our colleagues and asked for donations. A flood of donated items came in, which are being given out to those who need them.

Carnage: When the waters subsided, more volunteers helped gut affected homes

How has the cleanup/restart operation progressed?

We’ve had relatively few issues, compared to some plants in our area. It’s a lot of small things. Utility issues, pumps that were flooded and getting them cleaned out. Water in the lubrication systems for compressors that needed to be cleared out and checked. Checking and restoring electrical systems, double checking all of our safety systems and interlocks.  The main strain is on the people, as we are still running short of some maintenance and operations personnel. Many of the supervisors have been working long hours and helping neighbours and family after work. There’s an emotional toll too. For days, everyone was so positive and so busy helping others. Then one day I noticed it was finally hitting people, and they relaxed enough to get tired. It will take months for most people to get back into their homes. And for most of us, we’ll be spending most of our spare time helping our friends. One particularly significant problem was the unavailability of one treatment chemical, because the plant we buy it from had not yet started up. We had to check on all our raw material supplies and all the utilities. Fortunately, we already had alternative suppliers set up and were able to resolve the issue in a short time.

What was your personal experience of the hurricane?

This is my second major hurricane at the Houston site. I moved here just a few weeks before Hurricane Ike in 2008. Hurricane Harvey was different. We only lost power for 24 hours – with Ike it was three weeks. In Texas heat, that’s miserable! This time, we were well set up with our camping stove, bottled water, food for days and water in the bathtubs, in case the water went off or the sewage treatment flooded, like it did during Ike. Fortunately, none of that has been that bad this time.

The main thing I’ll remember from Harvey is the carnage in people’s lives. In my neighbourhood, more than 600 homes flooded. They’re mostly ranch-style (or bungalows for my British friends) homes. I saw lots of volunteers in boats and folks swimming and wading to help people to safety. Then when the waters subsided, more volunteers helped gut affected homes. You see people’s belongings on the street piled higher than their houses. It’s incredibly intimate; you see their choices of styles and fabrics, children’s toys and furniture. One little girl was so excited when someone handed her a Disney Princess blanket, because she had nothing left. Among my immediate staff, three homes flooded, and one of our leadership team who is also a close friend lost her car from flooding. We ride horses together, so instead of doing that, we have been gutting her home, packing up her dry belongings, storing them and doing more washing than I ever remember doing, even when I had small children. We all have our moments going through their things, when memories come back for the owners, such as a wedding album or baby clothes of children who have grown up.

Pressure from the hurricane left one particular impact: many babies were born early, including our newest site family member, a new grandson to one of our maintenance supervisors. I’ll remember the faces, the rescues, the mounds of gutted belongings but, most of all, the incredible human spirit and determination to help people and to help the plant. Our folks were simply extraordinary. I’m so grateful everyone was safe, that I work for a company that takes safety and risk prevention seriously, that we had prepared for this scenario, and that we have many layers of protection to keep the systems and our people, the environment and our neighbours safe.

Esprit de corps: Cordiner (front, right) “there was a feeling we were spared and we needed to help those around us”

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

Senior reporter, The Chemical Engineer

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.