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Water & Wastes Digest recently interviewed Jeff Taylor, the city of Houston’s Deputy Director of the Public Utilities Division, about Houston’s preparation and response to Hurricane Rita. Jeff is directly responsible for the operation of the Water and Sewer Utility in Houston and on the actions that were taken prior to and after Hurricane Rita struck. He gave us some insight on how Houston’s water utility coped with the landfall of such a large storm and how they used their SCADA system and other resources to respond effectively to the Hurricane.
Jeff also illustrates how even disastrous events like Hurricanes can be taken advantage of to test strategies and learn for future catastrophes.
WWD: "What specific types of damages did you expect on your water systems prior to the hurricane? "
Jeff Taylor: “We really didn’t know what to expect. Our previous large storm experience had been from tropical storm Alison where most of the damages were from flooding. After Alison, Some of our facilities were flooded out and we lost mechanical equipment, instrumentation and other utilities so this time we geared our efforts towards dealing with flooding as oppose to wind damage.”
WWD: “Was there a fear of major water contamination in any of the flooding like the kind that took place in New Orleans? If so, what steps did you take to prevent or handle this?”
Jeff Taylor: “No, not at all. Even during Allison we didn’t have a New Orleans type of scenario. Even though it’s flat here the water still has some place to go, it just doesn’t pond nearly to the extent it does there.
The results of this storm were about what we had hoped for. We didn’t loose service to customers on the water and sewer side at all, not at all, not for one minute of the day.
We suffered power outages, which we had anticipated, but we have a lot of redundancy on the water side of things. On the sewer side of things, the sewage basically just sat in the collection system until we were able to have the power restored.
We began the power restoration in a couple of different fashions. In the areas were we had immediate problems we took out generators, and we took out a lot of 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: “So your department was well prepared for the hurricane then? “
Jeff Taylor: “Yeah we actually got pretty lucky. Fortunately this storm didn’t have a lot of rain in it so it didn’t add a lot of flow into the collection system, and because we had been having a hundred-degree plus temperature spell prior to it there wasn’t a lot of sewage sitting in the sewer system.
This event for us was nothing like what New Orleans experienced. It would be a misnomer to suggest that it was.”
WWD: “Then were you able to gather a lot of data during this event that you will put to use later on?”
Jeff 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: “Has the fuel shortage hindered your response efforts at all? How have you been handling that?”
Jeff Taylor: “We are actually dealing 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. This meant that when going into the storm on Friday all of our fueling locations were full and it served us really well.”
WWD: “What steps did you take to ensure the safety of your technicians who would be working during the hurricane?”
Jeff Taylor: “We have a rule that they don’t go out at all if the winds are above 40-45 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 to where we can deploy our forces.
The secondary step is to organize a giant reconnaissance operation and that’s done with our technicians (we call them Technical Hardware Analysts) in conjunction with our SCADA system operators. The SCADA system informs us on 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 it from there.”
WWD: “Was the federal government helpful in your preparations and response to the hurricane?”
Jeff Taylor: “Because of the nature of the event it just wasn’t that bad. The lion’s share of it we did ourselves. However, there was one specific facility that had a particular problem where we needed some help.
We have both surface water and treated water facilities. 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, and they actually established power in about two, two and a half 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.”
WWD: “I would like to thank you for taking the time for this interview, good luck with the clean up and restoration.”
Jeff Taylor:“Sure, we are just doing clean up now and things are working out pretty well.”