After Disaster Strikes: Lessons Learned from the Gulf Coast: 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

Article excerpt

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.

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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. …

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