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Hurricane Harvey provided the ultimate test of disaster preparedness and recovery plans. The August 2017 storm walloped the Gulf Coast of Texas with high winds and a 6-foot storm surge. Then it circled around, lingering over the Houston area. It dumped more than 40 inches of rain, or more than 27 trillion gallons (about 15 percent of the volume of Lake Erie), making Harvey the wettest Atlantic hurricane ever measured.

While early forecasts put communities on alert to the possibility of serious impacts, the catastrophic deluge was not anticipated. Nevertheless, MMR Constructors, Inc., was ready. The Louisiana-based electrical and instrumentation contractor took heed of the early warnings and implemented its hurricane risk mitigation plan that had been honed following other massive storms, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. MMR, which serves the energy sector and other industries in the Gulf of Mexico region and beyond, is about as ready for such a natural disaster as any construction company can be.

Still, Harvey delivered an awesome amount of devastation, says Michael Munn, MMR district health, safety and environmental coordinator. MMR had to wait a couple of days for water to recede before it could send in a small crew to assess the damage at Shell Deer Park’s Olefins flare gas recovery project. Despite the setback, pre-planning and devotion to safety protocols allowed the contractor to complete the refinery job on time, under budget and with no safety incidents.

Companies that are able to recover quickly from natural or manmade disasters spend considerable time and resources to prepare for those events. Consider that in 2018, three devastating hurricanes, extreme wildfires, hail, flooding, tornados and drought caused an estimated $306 billion of property damage in the United States—a record amount for a single year. A recent report from NASA found that the past five years have been the warmest ever recorded, and this climate trend is likely to create conditions for more devastating storms.

Construction Executive spoke with executives at MMR and Dallas-based KBR, a global energy industry and government contractor, for insights on best practices for disaster preparedness and recovery. Both companies have endured many calamities and developed effective strategies to mitigate risks and get projects back on track as quickly as possible. Here are the key points that can help any construction company do the same.

VIGILANTLY MONITOR WEATHER AND SECURITY CONDITIONS

Working in an area that is prone to hazards requires managers to continually monitor conditions. During hurricane season, MMR and KBR check weather reports at least daily in places like the Gulf Coast and Australia. 

“You usually get at least two or three days notice before a storm hits,” says Farhan Mujib, vice president of KBR Hydrocarbons – Delivery Solutions. That means tracking storm paths almost as obsessively as a meteorologist. Every hour of preparation is crucial, so don’t move on with the day’s activities before getting a forecast update.

KBR contracts with governments around the world and with private companies in the petroleum services division. Some of these areas—Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan, for example—are in war zones or are vulnerable to politically motivated violence. One uprising in Indonesia forced KBR to evacuate about 1,000 workers and family members to Singapore, Mujib recalls. Company officials had to quickly line up airline tickets so people could get out safely. “Situations like that really test you,” Mujib says.

Typically, KBR’s clients retain their own security teams onsite in dangerous zones. The contractor sometimes puts together its own security squad, usually comprised of ex-military personnel, to augment the client’s team. In addition, KBR cultivates relationships with local law enforcement authorities who can provide early warning of unrest. 

REDUCE ONSITE HAZARDS

When severe weather is in the forecast, it’s time to prepare the construction site for the worst. First, clean up and secure the site. Stow away equipment and materials so they won’t be blown around by high winds or destroyed by flooding. 

Shut down infrastructure to reduce the risk of electrocution from a deadly mix of live wires and floodwaters. Move heavy equipment, such as forklifts, excavators, trucks and trailers, to higher ground if flooding is a possibility.

IMPLEMENT A COMPREHENSIVE RECOVERY PLAN EARLY

Have a contingency plan to move workers to safe locations. Make sure they have enough time to get to those sites. Most local workers will probably want to be with their loved ones to ride out the storm. 

Seek volunteers to either remain onsite or in a secure location nearby. “Those from out of the area who don’t have to worry about their families being affected are more likely to step up,” Munn says. With 24 offices nationwide, MMR often seeks volunteers from out of the impact area to bolster emergency response crews. 

The company prepares to house them in a mini-RV camp a safe distance from the most vulnerable areas. The temporary village is composed of vehicles the company owns or rents. 

“We are unable to rely on hotels because they are usually booked up,” Munn says. 

Employees who ride out the storm in the hazard zone should know where to get medical help. They also should be equipped with satellite phones in case cellular networks and landlines fail. 

MMR has worked for, and established relationships with, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. These federal contacts coordinate recovery efforts and are among the best informed about conditions in the aftermath of a disaster. They can provide valuable updates on highway closures and infrastructure conditions.

Both MMR and KBR maintain an inventory of electrical generators and pumps. When a hurricane is forecast, the companies deploy these supplies close to the anticipated impact areas so they can quickly be conveyed where needed. Typically, Munn says, there is a shortage of generators in an area after a disaster, so companies that don’t have a stock of them on hand will probably be out of luck.

ASSESS DAMAGE

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, floodwater was too high to transport personnel to the construction site, Munn says. After a couple of days, the water had receded enough to move workers in using high-wheeled vehicles. Oil refinery infrastructure along the Gulf Coast is built high off the ground in anticipation of flooding, so the Shell Deer Park was not destroyed. 

Still, there was substantial cleanup and repair work to be done. After a major flood, there’s no telling what might have washed onto a site. Deer, snakes and rats have all been swept up as transom and deposited on worksites during Gulf Coast flooding, Munn says. At one site, a feral hog was wedged within a turnstile gate. The company calls in wildlife management officials to handle these issues.

After a site is safe for workers to enter, KBR typically sends in a code team to assess what needs to be done. Following a severe flood, generators have to be set up to power pumps to dewater the site. Crews assigned to a construction project often help the client with this work on the whole facility—not just the section under construction.

“This gives us the opportunity to help a client out,” Munn says. After MMR helped the Shell Deer Park facility relaunch operations after Hurricane Harvey, construction crews turned their full attention back to the project. 

IMPLEMENT SOUND PRACTICES TO GET BACK ON TRACK FASTER

Practicing high-quality design, procurement and construction procedures reduces delays and boosts safety on all projects. On the other hand, engineering and construction errors only compound delays when a disaster strikes. 

“If you don’t start on time and stay on budget, after a disaster you’re going to cripple the schedule,” Munn says.

What’s more, high-quality standards always make for a safer worksite, disaster or not, Mujib points out. “Our research shows that 40 percent of our safety incidents happen as a result of re-work—something not fabricated or installed properly,” he says. 

SHARE LESSONS LEARNED

Every crisis is different, and there are always lessons to be learned. It’s critical to record those lessons following each event and incorporate them into the organization’s disaster planning so that all divisions and regional teams can benefit from the experience. 

After digesting the lessons of Hurricane Harvey, KBR created a full-time position dedicated to emergency management, crisis management and business continuity to help the company better navigate natural disasters and emergency events in the future. This executive travels around the world training KBR teams via exercises resembling military “war games” that cover a range of topics. Tailored to the vulnerabilities of the site, the half-day to full-day events simulate crises and allow participants to test their ability to respond and assess any shortcomings.  

Take it from those who have lived through their share of disasters: Preparing for them is an ongoing process, so firms should never be satisfied with their risk mitigation and training protocols. Even seasoned veterans can always learn something new, Munn says: “If you don’t refresh your training, you can lose your edge.” 

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