HH: Collateral Damage

Secondary threats before and after the nation’s largest hurricane in a decade

With Southeastern Texas, and specifically the Houston, Galveston, and Beaumont metro areas, taking on catastrophic flooding and generational damage from Hurricane Harvey for the duration of last weekend, all eyes were rightfully focused on that region heading into this week. The storm is officially the most extreme rain event recorded in U.S. history, and already projected to be the costliest.

-Made initial landfall late Friday night (8/25) as a Category 4 storm (winds of 130–156 mph)

-First major hurricane to make landfall in U.S. since Hurricane Wilma in 2005

30,000-40,000 homes in Houston area alone destroyed; inundated hundreds of thousands of homes total

-Average of over 40 inches of rainfall in affected areas (Houston: 51 inches as of Thursday)

Second landfall Tuesday PM/Wednesday early AM around Beaumont, TX and Western Louisiana

 

In the unrelenting nature of natural disasters, secondary threats emerged Tuesday into Wednesday as the storm made a second, albeit less severe, landfall to the east.

Explosions at chemical plant in Crosby. On Thursday morning (8/31), Arkema, Inc., reported multiple explosions at its plant in Crosby, TX, about 20 miles northeast of Houston. Flooding from Hurricane Harvey caused the plant, which produces volatile organic peroxides, to lose power on Wednesday. Certain chemicals stored at the plant require refrigeration and temperature control. The power outage cut off these capabilities, leading to combustion. While Arkema itself labeled the sounds ‘explosions’ via Twitter at 5:20 AM, the ensuing emergency officials insisted that word was not accurate, calling them “popping sounds”. Residents within a 1.5-mile radius around the plant, many of whom were already in flooded areas or had already evacuated, were ordered to evacuate upon hearing about the explosions. Workers at the plant had been previously pulled from the facility earlier in the week out of concern for their safety. An additional pressing fear is that chemicals will pollute the water in the area.

New Orleans pump and turbine failures, prior to Harvey, expose additional issues. Houston was the major city to take on the worst damage from the storm. However, in an already low-lying area, and on the 12-year anniversary of one of its worst memories, the threat of Hurricane Harvey was compounded in New Orleans by a pumping and drainage crisis dating back to weeks prior, CNN reported Saturday. The city’s drainage system, combined with special fortifications put in place by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, experienced problems from heavy rainfall in early August, well before Hurricane Harvey had begun to develop. Six to ten inches of rain fell on the city during the week of August 7. ‘Critical deficiencies’ of more than 100 pumps in the system were exposed in multiple neighborhoods as flooding occurred, and an integral make of turbine—one of only five of its kind in the entire city which power a special frequency for older pumps—failed August 9. The setback to New Orleans’ Sewerage and Water Board lost service, leaving it initially unable to run the city’s oldest and most powerful drainage pumps. It reduced the system’s ability to drain street water on the east bank of New Orleans, where areas that flooded Saturday are located, the mayor said. Although the turbine was restored by the time Harvey made landfall, these issues reflected red flags in general infrastructure common across the country that have prompted heated debate and were reiterated by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Of the 120 drainage pumps, 106 were in service as of Friday, August 25, the day Harvey made landfall, according to a statement from Landrieu that day. Seven of those pumps were relatively small and located in newer sections of the city where flooding weeks ago was not a problem, according to the most recent records posted online Friday night by the city-owned Sewerage & Water Board. Another five were among the system’s 20 so-called “constant duty” pumps, which are also small and work to clear the streets of runoff from lawn watering and other daily water usage.

Oil refineries shut down. On Tuesday, August 29, over 26 inches of rain fell in Port Arthur, Texas. The 50,000 residents of that city, north and east of Houston, are suffering severe flooding and personal loss. Port Arthur is also the home of the largest refinery in the United States, Motiva, which has been shut down due to massive flooding. In addition, the nearby Valero Energy and ExxonMobil  refineries were shut and the Colonial Pipeline (distributing refined products across the Southeast and north to Tennessee) has been disrupted. About 22% of U.S. refining capacity is offline due to the natural disaster. All told, it now appears that the impact Harvey will have on the energy industry is worse than expected and could very well, in a worst case scenario, lead to a serious macro-economic problem.

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