After Disaster Strikes: Lessons Learned From the Gulf Coast

Aug. 1, 2007
As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast region on Aug. 29, 2005, residents and business owners braced themselves, not realizing they were facing what would become the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. After the storm, safety professionals hunkered down for rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts that taught them lessons they would never forget.

When referring to the lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina, many have compared the response efforts and the disaster itself to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The scope of both disasters caught the nation by surprise: airplanes crashing into the twin towers, causing them to disintegrate, and a hurricane creating a path of destruction along the Gulf coast and contributing to the drowning of an American city seemed inconceivable until they occurred.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall with 140 mph winds and a 30-plus foot storm surge, decimating the Gulf coast and ravaging parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. Weeks later, Hurricane Rita ripped through what was left of the region. In total, almost 2,000 people died, thousands more were injured and hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed. Financial losses hovered around the $100 billion mark. And that was only the beginning.

The hurricane left a path of destruction that needed to be cleared out and cleaned up. Just as with 9/11, workers from all over the country flocked to New Orleans, Gulf Port, Miss., and the rest of the Gulf Coast region to preform rescue, recovery and cleanup operations. And like those workers in New York following 9/11, their work was fraught with hazards lurking at every corner.

For those responding to the tragedy, protecting themselves while helping others became a paramount, albeit difficult, task. There was a laundry list of dangers: heat stress; noise; dust; asbestos; carbon monoxide; chemicals; mold; waterborne, foodborne and bloodborne diseases; dangerous animals such as snakes and alligators; downed electrical power lines; confined spaces and more.

Despite the hazards, teams of safety trainers, industrial hygienists and others rushed to the Gulf Coast to offer their services. The consensus among all safety professionals – whether they were contracted by a government agency or a private company – is that the experience impacted them professionally and personally. Presented with challenges they ordinarily did not have to deal with, safety professionals say they came back with a newfound perspective on safety and are applying the lessons learned during Gulf coast recovery to their current day-to-day safety programs and practices.

Don’t Underestimate Emergency Preparedness

After the storm, many companies – especially refineries – were anxious to get their facilities in the region back online and running. However, many did so without considering the potential safety risks for their workers, says Mike Wright, director of health and safety and environment for the United Steelworkers (USW), which represents workers in the petrochemical industry as well as steelworkers.

Wright says the main lessons he learned while implementing safety and health measures in New Orleans was that companies were not as prepared as they should have been when it came to having a proper recovery plan in place. As a result, workers often were put in jeopardy trying to get businesses operational.

“Nobody quite anticipated the scale of the disaster, but in retrospect, they should have,” states Wright.

In response to the disaster and its aftermath, Wright and the union provided assistance and training for workers. Today, the USW continues to teach a course on disaster recovery and preparedness so union members know what to do if a natural disaster or any other type of extreme event takes place in their area.

“Emergency preparation and planning and training applies no matter what,” emphasizes Debbie Brown, who was an EHS manager for a major capital project for Chevron at the time of the hurricanes. “If you have a written plan, if you do training, if you have centralized control and coordination, you are really ahead of the game.”

Brown says that if not for the previous disaster preparedness training she received as part of a Chevron specialty team that conducts annual drills to prepare for potential oil or chemical spills, things would have turned out very differently for the company’s largest American refinery. That refinery, located in Pascagoula, Miss., took a direct hit from Katrina.

The refinery employs 1,200 people and it was reported that up to 300 refinery employees lost their homes in the hurricane. Many, if not most, of the refinery workers didn’t come to work after the storm because they were dealing with their own personal losses. Consequently, the company called for reinforcements and Brown arrived on Sept. 4 to assist.

Although many of the refinery workers trickled back into work in the weeks following the disaster, work – much less safety – was not on their minds. As a result, Brown learned that in addition to wearing her technical hat, she needed to resort to her people skills to help refinery workers who lost their homes cope with their personal devastation. Safety meant much more than just avoiding injury in the wake of Katrina.

The Value of People Skills

“As industrial hygienists, we have many technical competencies we work to perfect. But in an emergency response, you should be able step back and look at big picture,” Brown explains. “Many of these people were worried about the whereabouts of their cousins, aunts, losing their house, insurance claims – you name it.”

In addition, another big challenge Brown faced while in the Gulf Coast was meeting certain priorities she normally didn’t have as an industrial hygienist. Had she gone there to use only her technical knowledge, she would have spent her time taking samples and clearing the area for monitoring purposes, she explains. But because of the nature of the situation, Brown found herself doing things that “weren’t business as usual,” such as building a camp for displaced and homeless workers, and referring employees to the refinery’s counseling services if they were having an especially trying and emotional day.

Brown commends Chevron leadership for making their workers’ well-being top priority. If the company had forced workers to work 12 hours days and expected them to make the refinery their priority while their personal lives were crumbling, the workers would not have been as committed to recovery efforts, Brown asserts.

In addition, the refinery made sure every Chevron worker was accounted for. To help account for employees affected by Hurricane Katrina, Chevron established a corporate toll-free line, used radio and Web communications and placed advertisements in newspapers across the Gulf Coast urging employees to contact the company. Employees in Pascagoula went door-to-door in search of coworkers who were missing.

Brown says she never will forget the day one particular announcement was made on the company radio: “I remember when they said the last person was accounted for and that everyone was alive and well,” she says. “There was a huge cheer.”

Always Call For Back Up

Other safety professionals also had to deal with less-than-ideal circumstances. Take Carter Ficklen, program manager for Mainthia Technologies, a contractor that supported government agencies during the recovery. Industrial hygienists from the two facilities he was called to assist had evacuated or were unable to work due to storm-damaged homes.

Ficklen was the only industrial hygienist on site, trying to manage all health and safety operations and feeling overwhelmed. While he was there, he helped triage the buildings for asbestos damage, chemical management issues, water intrusion and mold-typical post-storm issues.

Ficklen says his experience reinforces the importance of having a back-up plan that doesn’t involve participation from local people. “The take-home lesson for me was that if you as a company or organization have something of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina hit the area, the resources that you think you have on your emergency response teams or recovery teams or business continuity teams will probably not be there,” he says. “You gotta have people from the outside lend support to the facility and help get it going again.”

While health and hygiene problems resulting from sheltering thousands of evacuees during and after the storm received a lot of attention from the national media, Ficklen says he and his team – comprised of a doctor, a sanitation worker and a person in charge of safety management – tried to weed out and prioritize the real threats to their workers. Topping the list were infections from injuries caused by nails in the two-by-fours that were everywhere around workers’ homes, exposure to flood waters and foodborne illnesses.

Like Brown, Ficklen was dumbfounded by the magnitude of the devastation and also listened to workers talk of “seeing family members and friends floating down the river” and losing their homes. But his most important take-away lesson was a better understanding of how to provide help to facilities when staff industrial hygienists were are out of commission.

“After Katrina, I learned not to ask why something wasn’t being done, but instead ask, ‘What do you need? What can I do?’” he says.

Using Every Skill Imaginable

While helping out in the Gulf Coast, the skills of safety professionals were put to the ultimate test.

Bob Readie, who was an EPA contractor and safety manager during the Katrina aftermath, was commissioned by the agency to help safety officers from various safety teams collect household hazardous waste and industrial waste material. Although he remembers being taken aback from the number and nature of the hazards, from heat stress to dangerous animals such as snakes and alligators, he says that as a safety professional, the learning experience was a positive one.

One thing that stuck out in Readie’s mind was the number of inexperienced people who were thrown into a disaster recovery situation for the first time. Readie and the other members of his safety team used all of their skill sets to provide training and basic safety knowledge to eager but inexperienced workers. The average number of years of experience among the safety corp was 15 years, so Readie says even he learned a thing or two while he was there.

“This was the one time I got to use my entire skill set in one event,” he states. “It was a phenomenal learning experience, both for the seasoned professionals that were there as well as for the younger personnel.”

Workers Needed More Protection

Although some inexperienced workers benefited from working alongside seasoned professionals such as Readie, not everyone was as lucky. Near-daily reports of workers, many of whom were immigrants – possibly undocumented and with little recourse – having to contend with chemical, oil and sewage contaminated waters with little or no safety equipment, were not uncommon. As a result, more than 100 organizations sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 6, 2005, urging immediate occupational safety protections for all Gulf Coast workers, as well as enforcement of OSHA and EPA regulations.

Likewise, a report issued by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Worker Education and Training Program (WETP) – based on a national technical workshop examining the first 6 months of the Katrina response – found that the failure of the government’s newly reactivated National Response Plan’s worker protection provisions continually placed Katrina responders in harm’s way.

“Efforts to include the lessons learned for protecting workers during the World Trade Center cleanup into the new NRP failed,” the report said. “Each government agency that responds – not just OSHA – has some role to play in assuring the safety and health of their own responders. Very few agencies fully integrated the worker safety and health lessons learned during prior disasters into the Katrina response.”

Throughout the response and recovery process, OSHA adamantly has defended its stance in offering technical assistance, not enforcement, calling technical assistance “the first line of defense in large-scale emergencies.”

On Oct. 5, 2006, OSHA issued a statement explaining that it intervened in nearly 5,000 situations where some 10,500 workers could have been seriously injured. Former Acting OSHA Administrator Jonathan Snare noted at the time that more than 100 OSHA workers “were fanned out across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas to help protect workers involved in cleanup and recovery operations.”

Need for Training Was Urgent

Immediately recognizing that there was an urgent need for training, NIEHS awarded funding to several organizations. One of those grants went to the Hazardous Materials Training and Research Institute (HMTRI) for deploying a Katrina response training team lead by Dan Snyder, a certified safety professional with the safety consulting group Performance Based Safety LLC. Snyder and his team of trainers traveled to Mississippi and New Orleans and implemented an “all-hazards approach” to training.

As soon as Snyder and his team arrived in Mississippi, they identified the first hazard they needed to tackle. “Without knowledge of what else was out there, we knew within 24 hours we could start setting up work zone and flagger training,” says Snyder.

Although Snyder and his team were commissioned to conduct training just for federal employees and federally deployed contractors, Snyder soon realized once he arrived in the Gulf Coast that the need for training was much greater.

“Here are a group of workers down here that showed up, have big hearts, want to do good and are exposed to all sorts of hazards they know nothing about,” Snyder remembers.

For example, Snyder and his team got a call from a crew saying one of their men incurred an injury when a battery exploded while he was hooking it up to a dump truck. Snyder and his team proceeded to conduct a 5-minute tailgate safety briefing on how to properly install a battery and the hazards associated with batteries.

Not surprisingly, Snyder’s team was in such high demand that one of the challenges he faced was keeping up with the new requests of hazard awareness training. “Take this example and times it by 1,000,” he says. “That was our biggest challenge.”

Snyder and his team spent 8 months in Mississippi and 7 months in New Orleans, and was one of the few training teams that had a full-time presence in the region. Other teams would fly in and fly out based on scheduling conflicts or instructor availability, Snyder says. He credits having people in the disaster area full-time as one of the reasons why his teams so successful and in such high demand.

Keep Sessions Short and Sweet

Snyder says one of the most positive lessons he learned while in the Gulf region was the effectiveness of his brief and frequent safety meetings in getting the attention of workers and raising safety awareness. Training and education out in the field, often about high-impact and pertinent topics, allowed trainers to send a consistent message about safety expectations.

“You have to be able to get right in the mud, blood and guts, so to speak, and be able to do training in an hour’s notice,” Snyder emphasizes. “Because situations arrive in real-time, doing brief and frequent safety training sessions was the only way to get the workers’ attention.”

Snyder also wishes that the teams could have arrived sooner to provide safety support and training, but because of government bureaucracy and paperwork, his team wasn’t deployed until 3 weeks after the event.

“The earlier we can get safety education and safety professionals down [to a disaster site] and the sooner we can get them embedded right after a disaster, the better off everyone is going to be,” insists Snyder.

Applying Lessons Learned After the Disaster

As safety professionals look back and reflect on their Gulf Coast experiences, some have taken the techniques they honed during the disaster and are applying them to their day-to-day occupational safety and health practice and programs.

Snyder, for instance, says that as a result of his experience training workers in the Gulf Coast, he is able to assess a situation and strip it down to see what’s most important. Because he had to train workers who had never worked at a disaster site before in far-less-than-ideal environmental conditions, he says he is better able to prioritize what is important and what is not.

No matter what kind of experience a safety manager, supervisor or trainer had while assisting in the Gulf Coast, Snyder asserts that it’s impossible for any safety professional who has worked in such a devastated environment to walk away professionally and emotionally untouched.

“Overall, anyone worth their weight as a safety professional comes out of that situation as a more humane person, a more understanding person and a better safety professional,” says Snyder.

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