Preparation for & Response to an Emergency

As part of our follow-up coverage of the hurricanes that ravaged the southeastern U.S. last fall, Water & Wastes Digest interviewed Jeff Taylor, deputy director of Houston’s Public Utilities Division, about Houston’s preparation and response to Hurricane Rita.

Taylor is directly responsible for the operation of the Water and Sewer Utility in Houston and for the actions that were taken prior to and after Hurricane Rita struck. He gave WWD some valuable insight on how Houston’s water utility prepared for and responded to the landfall of such a large storm.

WWD: What specific types of damages did you expect on your water system prior to the hurricane?

Jeff Taylor: We really didn’t know what to expect. Our previous large storm experience had been from tropical storm Allison, where most of the damages were from flooding. After Allison, some of our facilities were flooded out, and we lost mechanical equipment, instrumentation and other utilities, so this time, we geared our efforts toward dealing with flooding as opposed to wind damage.

WWD: Was there a fear of major water contamination in any of the flooding? If so, what steps did you take to prevent or handle this?

Taylor: No, not at all. The results of this storm were about what we had hoped for. We suffered power outages, which we had anticipated, but we have a lot of redundancy on the water side. We began the power restoration in a couple of different fashions. In the areas where we had immediate problems, we took out generators. We also worked hand in hand with Center Point Energy, who is our power provider, and gave them a prioritized list of facilities on a daily basis that they then went out to restore power to.

WWD: Were you able to gather a lot of data during this event that you will put to use in the future?

Taylor: We used this event as a huge training lesson for us. We went to full deployment and implemented our emergency management plan throughout the utility, and what we discovered was that our plan is actually pretty good.

We deployed our people in strategic locations that have certain types of facilities and resources. During this type of scenario, our fleet changes the way we manage our SCADA system, and we go to a different operational mode.

All of that played out pretty well. We did find that there are a lot of things that we can do differently, and we are using that whole experience as a lesson learned exercise. We are now revising our emergency management plan accordingly.

WWD: Did the fuel shortage hinder your response efforts at all?

Taylor: We actually dealt with it pretty well. Our standard procedure during an emergency situation is to top off our tanks and vehicles on a daily basis at the end of each shift.

In addition to that, one of that tasks leading into an event like a hurricane is also topping off the tanks, and we additionally fill our other storage fuel tanks that we have deployed throughout the city.

WWD: What steps did you take to ensure the safety of your technicians who worked during the hurricane?

Taylor: We have a rule that they don’t go out at all if the winds are above 40 to 45 miles an hour, so one of the steps is simply to sit there and take the brunt of the storm until the winds die down.

The secondary step is to organize a giant reconnaissance operation, and that’s done with our technical hardware analysts in conjunction with our SCADA system operators. The SCADA system informs us of the locations where we have issues, or potentially have issues, and the technicians are deployed to those locations first. We then create a prioritization list and work from there.

WWD: Was the federal government helpful in your preparations and response to the hurricane?

Taylor: There was one specific facility that had a particular problem where we needed some help.

We had one specific surface water intake structure and pumping station that did not have commercial power provided, and the initial reads were that that system wouldn’t be powered for as much as a week, which would have created some serious problems.

We started working on a two-pronged approach to restore power; one was to get the utility companies to make restoring power to that facility a priority, which they did in a couple of days. We also had a secondary plan to install very large generators at that location, and the federal government assisted us in the process of procuring those generators.

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