From The Editor | October 20, 2015

The Hurricane Handbook For Utilities


By Kevin Westerling,

Based on actual experiences and lessons learned in the aftermath of a hurricane, the Water Research Foundation helps provide a checklist of best practices — pre- and post-storm — for utilities in harm’s way.

The Atlantic hurricane season may be winding down, and it may have been relatively quiet, but utilities are advised to stay vigilant. That’s the advice from Rob Renner, executive director of the Water Research Foundation (WRF), which recently published a study on the operational and economic impacts of a hurricane on drinking water systems. Hurricane Joaquin’s effect on South Carolina, even without making landfall, was just the most recent reminder of the damage that can be wrought by extreme rain.

And for utility managers in hurricane-sensitive areas, extreme rain is very likely to come on your watch. The supposed ‘100-year storm’ event is occurring much more frequently than the name implies, requiring municipalities to prepare for the inevitable.

According to Renner, “Emergency response planning, training, and organized pre-storm preparations are the keys to successful operation and response in the event of a storm.”

That in mind, what should a utility specifically do before, during, and after a significant storm event? I posed the question to Renner and he kindly provided the following bullet points — advice based on WRF’s utility impact study in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Bookmark this page for a ‘rainy day,’ perhaps, but best to plan ahead and act with haste.

Steps To Take As A Hurricane Approaches

  • Know where your biggest risks and vulnerabilities are.  Loss of power is the biggest and most expensive issue experienced by utilities.  Next on the list is losing pressure in the system and road closures.  The road closures, flooding, or debris in the road prevent water and power utilities from being able to access the system. Lower on the list, but important, are issues including the loss of electrical components, physical damage to the well house or treatment plant, and flooded well fields.  Finally, communication loss via radios or cell phones was a big problem.  Utilities find that there’s a lower likelihood of problems related to a loss of chemicals, staff to operate the plant or do repair, or contamination of the system.

  • Utilities found that checklists are particularly helpful in preparing the organization for both building up equipment needed to respond and to ensure that operations effectively do what is needed, such as systematically closing particular valves, organizing work crew schedules, filling vehicles with fuel, etc.
  • Testing emergency generators, in particular, on a regular schedule is something that should be done routinely.  Utilities that waited too long were surprised at times to find their generator had trouble starting.  Some found this out too late.

  • Ensure access to fuel.  Utilities need access to fuel, both for their vehicles and for their generators.  Some utilities emphasize the precaution of filling up staff vehicles to enable staff to both arrive for their scheduled work times, and to make sure their families are secure so that they can perform their work without excessive concern.

  • Incident command structures (ICSs), emergency operations centers (EOCs), and state Water/Wastewater Agency Response Networks (WARNs)
    • Prior organization of key communicators placed out of the potential flood zone improves communication with state regulators, news media, and customers, as well as neighboring utilities or aid organizations.  Operations staff are then able to focus on their operations.
    • Prioritization with energy companies.  Utilities can survive temporarily without immediate power if they have backup power generation.  However, utilities need to establish communication with the power utilities.  Although facilities such as hospitals need immediate restoration, utilities need to have communicated their need for being a priority for restoration as soon as possible.  Communication with the power companies about when there is access to fundamental power equipment is important.

  • Customer communication.  Having strong messaging on the utility website provides customers a portal for information.  Customers need to be able to call into a utility.  Providing a call center outside of the flooded area facilitates receiving calls if telecommunications are out.  Having the ability to contact particular customers with information that their water is out because of an uprooted tree or ‘do not drink’ information may be needed.  Utilities have found that depending on the media or city officials may result in inaccuracies and cause more concern than is necessary.  Direct communication is better.

  • Mutual aid agreements. Water systems that work with other utility organizations, state, or local entities, such as offices of emergency management and environmental protection and boards of public utilities, find that mutual aid agreements are beneficial. Partnerships with utilities, public works, and public service providers in neighboring towns can help supplement the local availability of emergency assistance.

  • Define roles and responsibilities.  Appropriate people need to be in touch prior to the storm. Emergency response staff should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, which should be well understood prior to a storm event. Furthermore, respondents suggested potential communication barriers between drinking water system staff should be identified and documented as part of an emergency response plan. Utilities that did not provide a schedule for staff in an emergency experienced exhaustion.  Additional time will be needed by operators, engineers, and maintenance staff to address the drinking water system’s needs during and after the storm.

  • Safety first.  During extreme storm events, safety is a primary concern for drinking water system managers. Safety provisions can be written into emergency preparedness plans and reviewed during drills. Critical evaluation of safety procedures should be a regular part of updating emergency preparedness plans in order to ensure the safety of drinking water system staff, even at the expense of the drinking water system.

  • Insurance documentation.  Identify processes and points of contact for insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Have this information available.  Identify what is needed for making claims with these organizations.  For example, if receipts and photos are necessary, make sure staff knows how to collect the information as it is developed.

Essential Tasks During/Immediately After The Storm

  • Power restoration. 

  • Additional water sampling. Prepare extra supplies in advance for water sampling.

  • Keep a photo record of events in preparation for insurance claims.

  • Additional personnel costs should be expected during extreme storm events and after the event.

  • Identify and prioritize major components that need repair such as a reservoir spillway, well house, or water mains.

In The Aftermath: Steps To Take And Lessons Learned

  • After Hurricane Irene, clear channels of communication with customers, regulators, neighboring drinking water systems, other utilities, and media outlets were all acknowledged as integral to the drinking water systems’ ability to provide service during and after the storm.

  • Reevaluating emergency plans to include evacuation and access procedures could help avoid setbacks due to road closures and other physical barriers.

  • Documenting infrastructure capacity. Documenting information about how various system components functioned during and following the storm can help a drinking water system better prepare for future emergencies. Documenting successes and failures in an After Action Report immediately following an emergency event can act as a record of damages, response protocols, recommendations for future emergencies, and recommended improvements. This report does not need to be lengthy, but may include several lists, pictures, and next step items.

  • Update emergency response plan.  Systems can make the most out of their emergency response plan by reviewing and updating information on a regular basis so that they are prepared when a storm occurs. Identify the need to develop and incorporate special provisions for critical facilities or highly vulnerable customers in the emergency response plan.

  • Utilities noted a number of lessons learned
    • Aging infrastructure and equipment renders the system more vulnerable to damage. Timely maintenance and replacement of infrastructure is important to improve the overall resiliency of drinking water systems, especially during a large storm event. Design infrastructure to resist potential damages from storms. For example, designing reservoir spillways to adequately handle a 100-year or more storm. Design mitigation and recovery plans for critical infrastructure, such as major distribution pipes that cross rivers.
    • Use of radio controls rather than fiber optics on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems is a measure drinking water systems can adopt to resist infrastructure damage from flooding.
    • Reimbursement expectations.  Drinking water systems reported that reimbursement from FEMA arrived several months after the costs were incurred. Drinking water systems can anticipate this kind of delay in their business continuity plans in order to maintain drinking water services in cases where there are significant delays in the distribution of relief funding to drinking water systems. An effective business continuity plan would include viable financial options to maintain drinking water services in cases where water systems do not receive relief funding or experience significant delays in the disbursement of these funds. Financial assistance may not be sufficient to offset long-term financial impacts caused by extreme storm events.