3 Hazmat Lessons from Hurricane Ida

Over the last two days of August, Hurricane Ida pummeled southern Louisiana with 150 mph sustained winds, massive flooding, extended power outages and disruption to drinking water and fire hydrant services. The Category 4 storm was also to blame for upwards of 2,000 reported oil and chemical spills that came into the U.S. Coast Guard.

Not all those spills have been investigated and confirmed. But NOLA.com estimates the final number will exceed the 540 spills caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

One day before Ida hit land, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued notifications that it was suspending some compliance requirements to allow pipeline companies time to prepare for the storm. The U.S. Department of Energy and at least four Federal Emergency Management Administration offices were involved in the initial response.

On Sept. 9, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expanded its air quality monitoring efforts in the areas hit by Ida. EPA is using aircraft to monitor industrial sites for emissions as power is restored and operations resume. EPA also has stationary monitors in place to pick up volatile organic compounds and tentatively identified compounds.

Southern Louisiana is a hazmat high danger zone. The area is rife with gas and liquid pipelines, oil refineries, fuel storage facilities, ports used to bring oil products into and out of both the Gulf and Mississippi River region, and a low water table. It is a favorite target of tropical storms — since 2000 on average, hurricanes have hit the state once every 2.8 years with cyclones coming on land twice every three years. These storms can wreak havoc on industrial infrastructure, kicking off hazmat incidents.

Few jurisdictions will have such a wide spectrum of threats as does Louisiana’s Gulf coast. But many will have one or more of those threats. And we all have some form of heavy weather and energy supply infrastructure. Here’s a look at three things to do to prepare your hazmat team for when Mother Nature takes a swat at your area.

ONE

Big events require big response. Have the relevant federal agency and private sector phone numbers on speed dial. The faster both can be activated, the better the chance of minimizing the incident’s impact.

TWO

Get into sites where hazmat threats exist. An information- and education-only inspection with operation leaders long before a storm hits has several benefits. It can help break the ice and establish rapport with those facility operators. It can give hazmat officers a close look at how the operation is set up. And it can give facility operators critical information for preparing for and reacting to a major storm incident. Review what was learned from those visits and reach out to those new connections when storms are forecasted. For more on how sites can prepare for severe weather, read this.

THREE

Build this level of disaster response into regular training. Plan for product leaks on both water and land — remembering to monitor the air. Mix the scenarios up so the leaks don’t always cover the same areas or move at the same rate. Keep the scenario’s specifics unknown to those at incident command so they must make decisions based on what they learn from the field.


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