Many areas of the U.S. find themselves firmly in the middle of hurricane season, which runs from June through November but peaks from mid-August to late October. After living through 2017’s historically devastating hurricane season, wherein there were three Category 4 U.S. landfalls in a period of just 26 days and the country’s damages reached a record-breaking $265 billion, most people are still in tune with just how destructive these storms can be and the dire importance of having a hurricane response plan in place.

Industrial plants are no different. With winds that can roar across landscapes at over 150 miles per hour, severe hurricanes can cause catastrophic damage not only to plants in coastal areas but also to those that are hundreds of miles inland. Even once hurricane winds pass, storm surges and extraordinary amounts of rain pose further threats. After the storm’s immediate impact, new dangers arise such as downed electrical wires, exposure to contaminated flood waters and toxic chemicals and the potential for heatstroke.

There’s no way to predict a disastrous storm’s exact path or prevent it from affecting your facility, but there are several things you can do - both before and after its arrival - to minimize damage to your assets, get the line moving again as soon as possible and ultimately save lives.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

The importance of planning and preparation cannot be overstated when considering your severe weather response. Assemble a team of people from several departments throughout your company, including leadership, HR, maintenance and security to develop a Hurricane Readiness Plan. A thorough plan will account for risks in multiple areas, answering questions including (but not limited to):

  • Financial hazards - What might be the effects of a prolonged shutdown on our plant and on our employees?

  • Physical hazards - What are the physical dangers to our employees, our facilities, the property and the surrounding environment? Will storm surge cause flooding? Will high winds damage the exterior of the buildings? Will power outages affect our products and/or chemicals? How can we ensure that we’ve created the safest environment for our workers?

  • Emotional/mental health challenges - Do we have resources to assist employees who sustain damage to their homes? How will we support our workers during a particularly stressful time?

  • Logistical considerations - What is our protocol for equipment shutdown and restart? How will we handle losses of raw materials to be delivered or finished goods that were shipped? What is our evacuation protocol?

  • Technology considerations - How will we ensure that our essential databases and records are preserved? What is our plan for getting servers and processes back online? Are our contact lists updated?

Once you’ve answered these questions, develop a timeline for your procedures. While the exact path of a storm is difficult to predict, there is often advance warning of impending danger to some degree. Establish objective triggers, such as the maximum wind speed at which your plant can continue operating, to help dictate when a shutdown should begin.

Employing a time-phased approach will allow your facility to successfully and strategically shut down operations prior to a storm’s arrival. Consider procedures that may need to take place four-five days out, others that should happen two-three days out, and still others that will need to take place under 48 hours from the storm’s anticipated arrival. The number one priority? Employee safety and an efficiently communicated evacuation plan.

As you create your plan, you may discover that updates to your facility are required to improve safety. Are your emergency exits sufficient? Do you have proper lighting? Does your flooring contribute to employee safety? Ergonomic flooring not only prevents fatigue but reduces slips, trips and falls. This is foundational at all times, but particularly if you’re anticipating what your plant needs to weather a storm.

After the Storm: Response and Recovery

You will want to return to your facility as soon as storm conditions subside and it is safe to do so. Identifying needs as early as possible is critical to creating a recovery plan and keeping operations intact. Important first steps include:

  • Assess and repair structural damage - a sound building is of foremost importance in order to protect employees and equipment.

  • Begin clean up protocols and startup operations. Multiple resources exist to help in this area. Here is a good place to start.

  • Increase communication - phone and internet lines may initially be down during the recovery period. An onsite radio system can improve communication as well as an emergency update hotline with pre-recorded information for staff.

  • Assess employee needs - determine how employees and community members have been negatively impacted by the storm. Ask human resources to set up an online portal for company-wide donation funds and distribute them appropriately. Consider the possibility of obtaining hotel rooms for employees and their families in need of temporary housing. Establish a physical location on site to collect and distribute clothing and food. Employees who feel supported by their company in times of distress will ultimately experience a boost in morale and loyalty.

The impending arrival of a hurricane can be a distressing experience. And while you ultimately don’t have control over where it will strike, you can certainly prepare for its arrival. In doing so, industrial plants will minimize downtime and maximize productivity, all while increasing safety and peace of mind for employees.