Ports, carriers prep for disasters — everything from hurricanes to fires

Port officials and carriers prepare for hurricanes and other emergency situations year-round.

When Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc across the Houston area in 2017, Colin Rizzo had never seen anything like it before.

Rizzo is Port Houston’s director of emergency management and responsible for planning and directing the facility’s emergency and disaster preparedness. 

Harvey was a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in Texas and Louisiana in late August 2017, causing catastrophic flooding and more than 100 deaths.

“Harvey was almost just the opposite [of other hurricanes] in that it was so widespread, but it wasn’t a wind event. It was a flood event,” Rizzo said. “Harvey was 50 inches of rain across the area. Our impact with Harvey was very different at the port because our terminals were damaged somewhat, but a lot of our employees were dealing with the destruction of their homes.”

Rizzo said the challenge with Hurricane Harvey was getting the port back in operation quickly, while making sure employees were cared for.

“The last thing employees wanted to hear about [was] ‘Hey, you need to come back to work tomorrow,’” Rizzo said. “We did a lot of outreach to our employees, finding out how many employees we had available to get back into operations. Our roads could be clear, ships could be coming in, but if we don’t have staff to man those gates or run those containers, it’s going to be worse than if we didn’t open.”

Officials at Crowley Maritime said it takes dedicated and trained personnel to make sure emergencies such as hurricanes don’t disrupt terminal or shipping operations.

“One of the important qualities is to have a good leader that can collaborate in an effective team,” Heather Harrison, Crowley Maritime’s director of corporate safety and quality, told FreightWaves.

Another trait that emergency response team leaders and members need is calmness, said Scott Hess, senior director of health, safety, security, environment and sustainability at Crowley Maritime.

“Some of the best incident managers that I’ve come across in my career are calm, they’re collected, they are open to suggestions, and they check their ego at the door,” Hess said.

As Ian moves toward Florida’s west coast as a Category 3 hurricane with a projected path through Tampa late Wednesday, FreightWaves spoke to several ports and a carrier about how they prepare and deal with disasters and major weather events.

Emergency teams help ports and ocean carriers keep supply chains moving

Emergency operations workers such as Rizzo, Harrison and Hess are essential personnel that work to make sure a port is prepared in case of any emergency or catastrophe.

Port Houston’s emergency operations team handles most of the prepping at the facility when a major storm is approaching. It is responsible for critical supplies, stacking loaded containers in a strategic fashion, organizing cranes to function as barriers and making sure all portable buildings are properly secured.

“In addition, they secure all terminal equipment, fill extra drums with fuel, lubricants, water and hydraulic fluids for use after the storm, board up all windows and keep all transportation vehicles supplied with fuel (boats, cars, vans, trucks), according to a blog post from Port Houston.

Rizzo said it takes a small army of port workers to make sure all the equipment and facilities are secured in the event of a hurricane or tropical storm.

“There would be hundreds of people working on our team to secure the port,” Rizzo said. 

Port employees must make sure to tie down crucial infrastructure like ship-to-shore cranes at the container terminals because it could take months to repair or replace them, Rizzo said. 

“You can’t take these huge cranes down and hide them from the wind,” Rizzo said. “Right now, if we had a storm on the way, one of the things that would be on my list would be what are we going to do about cranes and containers? Do we even have the room to stack these containers to three or four high? Are we going to tie them down harder somehow or shut down a little bit sooner and start filling our driveways with containers to protect the port?”

Once the port is secured, Rizzo said the facility has a team that would stay on-site for the duration of a hurricane or weather event.

“We have a small team, about 30 or 40 people and another 50 public safety people,” he said. “Our fire department would be here at full strength if not even higher, probably another 30 or so, and they would be on the fireboats to actually ride the storms.”

During Hurricane Harvey, operations at Port Houston were closed for about 10 days, as the storm dumped as much as 50 inches of rain in and around the area.

In September 2021, the Port of New Orleans was forced to shut down its container vessel operations during Ida, a destructive Category 4 storm that became the second-most damaging hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana on record, behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Hurricane Ida was responsible for about 90 deaths across the U.S.

Hurricane Ida knocked out power throughout the New Orleans area for several days between Aug. 30 and Sept. 4. While local officials did not call for a mandatory evacuation, some employees conducted operations while away from the port, Jessica Ragusa, Port of New Orleans spokeswoman, told FreightWaves.

“Safety of our employees was a top priority during Hurricane Ida,” Ragusa said. “Our designated essential staff reported to the port immediately while other essential staff who were able continued to work remotely to ensure business continuity.”

Ragusa said in the event of a storm, the Port of New Orleans works with its terminal operators, tenants and partners at the U.S. Coast Guard, Flood Protection Authority, and Army Corps of Engineers to ensure safety and secure cargo, rail and cruise operations. 

Ragusa said the port was able to resume limited breakbulk cargo and railroad operations about four days after closing. Container operations resumed after nine days.

“Though Hurricane Ida caused mass power outages throughout our region and closed the Lower Mississippi River to navigation, the port’s terminals and industrial real estate properties did not sustain major damage, due to their location within the $14 billion federal Hurricane & Storm Damage Risk Reduction System,” Ragusa said. “The river reopened just three days after Hurricane Ida made landfall.”

Emergency responders always prepare for disasters — even if there isn’t one

Emergency and disaster response isn’t just preparing for hurricanes and other major storms. It can be a daily and sometimes hourly job. 

Emergencies could encompass everything from fires on a container ship to a military chopper crashing near the Houston Ship Channel, as was the case in 2016.

“Safety is essential to everything we do,” David DeCamp, a spokesman for Crowley Maritime, told FreightWaves. “It’s not just a year-round job. It’s an hourly job. We operate in 36 countries and island territories, in ocean and land transportation, warehousing and port terminals. Safety is critical as a company of 7,000 people.”

Crowley is a privately owned and operated logistics, government, marine and energy solutions company headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. 

Crowley boasts 19 terminals in the U.S., Caribbean and Latin America. The company also operates a fleet of 200 vessels, including container ships, roll-on, roll-off vessels, articulated tug barges, tugs and barges. Crowley also provides services to offshore energy installations, to operating and managing petroleum tank vessels.

Just like at Port Houston, Crowley officials said it takes a legion of personnel to get a facility or ship prepared for a hurricane or severe weather event. Since the company sports multiple terminals, as well as hundreds of ships, it could be dealing with several emergencies at any given time.

“When you’re in the middle of the ocean on a tanker, you’re the fire department. You’re the emergency response. You’re everything,” Hess said. “That kind of planning and prepping on the safety side of things has been ongoing throughout my career.”

Hess said it could also be that while one facility or ship at Crowley is seeing the end of a storm or emergency event, another facility or ship could just be at the beginning of another crisis.

“During Hurricane Irma, at one point we had 13 facilities in one level or another of the response,” he said. “Sometimes we’re in preparatory mode in some locations and in recovery mode at others at the very same time. So we’re actually bringing together those people so we can understand the effects rippling through the supply chain.”

Irma was a powerful hurricane that brought widespread destruction across Florida and parts of the Southeastern U.S. in September 2017. It caused about 134 deaths, including 92 people in the U.S.

Harrison said emergency preparedness training should be ongoing throughout the year for all employees, especially those in leadership roles.

“Safety leadership training for supervisors is important, so what that entails is building leaders in the company that have dedicated skills where you influence others to be safe,” Harrison said. “We do safety culture assessments every two years. We don’t just measure the safety culture as a whole. We go to different sites or even business units to say, ‘How is your culture when it comes to safety here? Do you have the right systems in place, and what does a little bit better look like?’ So [that way] we can address those and do continuous improvement.”

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