Ready for the Worst

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

September 24, 2012

Taking Emergency Plans for a Dry Run

Most every company knows it should have a plan to deal with catastrophe. That’s especially true for shipyards and vessel owners who often ply their trade in hurricane zones, where weather can rip apart a lifetime of work overnight, make confetti out of assets, and leave disarray in its wake.
Emergency plans can be simple or complex, depending on the needs of a specific business. There are a number of resources to help business owners create customized plans, including online templates, detailed guidelines and model documents. A company’s insurance agent and carrier can also serve as useful resources for businesses trying to determine what should be in a plan, and how to best position themselves to recover quickly if disaster strikes.
A plan by itself, however, is not enough. A company that makes a plan and sticks it on a shelf has taken only the first step toward preparing for a catastrophe. Based on extensive experience cleaning up after natural disasters over many years, insurance carriers have noticed that some businesses bounce back quickly while others have a difficult time recovering. Those that survive most often are the ones that have gone beyond making a plan, taking extra precautions and thinking through worst-case scenarios.

A Plan Is Only As Good As Its Execution
The story of one shipyard’s experience with Hurricane Katrina demonstrates why having a plan is not always enough. With the storm approaching, a designated crew followed the shipyard’s emergency plan, taking two spud barges and a breasting barge deep into a marshy area away from the anticipated path of the hurricane.
Upon arrival at the designated spot, the crew realized it had not brought the proper lines to secure the breasting barge. With the storm approaching and the yard an hour and a half away, there was no time to do anything other than use the worn lines that were available. The spuds were dropped into place and the breasting barge was tied between the two spud barges.
Unfortunately, the winds were stronger than the lines. Perhaps even the emergency lines, set aside but forgotten, would not have been enough. The breasting barge broke free and was blown into an interstate freeway bridge more than a mile away, causing extensive damage and disrupting traffic.
Twenty days and almost $6 million later, the bridge was once again operational. However, that was not the only expense.
When the waters receded after Katrina died down, the barge was stranded in a shallow area until a canal could be dug to get it back to where it could be floated to the yard.  
“For Want of a Nail” is an old proverb that spells out the chain of circumstances when a horseshoe nail comes loose, the horse falters, a man is thrown, a battle is lost and a kingdom falls. In this case, for want of a good line, a barge was lost, a bridge was disabled and a shipyard suffered.

Beyond an Emergency Plan
So what should a company do besides have an emergency plan in place? The following are four steps that can make a difference in how a company rides out a storm.

The Emergency Drill. At least once a year, the emergency plan should be removed from the shelf, dusted off and reviewed for its continuing suitability. In the time since the plan was made, a company may have added a different line of business, brought on new equipment to the site, or even have new people in place who have never seen the plan. By running a table-top exercise with current staff on a regular schedule, the company can familiarize everyone with the plan’s content and determine if it still makes sense. The plan should also be incorporated as a topic into routine safety meetings and the orientation training for new hires. If a staff position has certain responsibilities in the plan, it is imperative that the person currently filling the job knows the duties in advance, so that any questions or issues can be addressed long before a storm hits.

The Right Stores. In addition to having an effective plan, a company should have the right equipment on hand to carry out the activities detailed in the plan. When a storm is approaching and everyone rushes to buy generators, ropes and plywood, shortages can develop. It is far better to know what is needed, buy it ahead of time and store it in a state of readiness. Particular attention should be paid to chains, lines and other equipment that face the wear and tear of daily use. Having new equipment, fresh and unused, stashed away in a designated locker that is to be accessed only in emergencies is a good way to ensure that the protections put in place will be at top strength.

Beyond the Zone. Effective emergency plans usually provide an updated list of suppliers, whether it is for manpower, fuel, equipment or water. These are often local vendors with whom the company is familiar or even those who are regularly relied on during normal business times. However, the plan should be reviewed with an eye to what happens if a disaster shuts down an entire city or region. The local vendors may have just as much trouble getting back into operational mode as the company depending on them. Instead, look farther afield – even several states away – and establish relationships in advance with alternative sources of supplies.

Manpower Solutions. One aspect of disaster recovery that sometimes catches companies by surprise is the lack of manpower available. This goes beyond the obvious need for employees to take care of their personal situations, such as property damage or family concerns, before they are able to focus on work. The aftermath of a storm often creates cleanup jobs with salaries that are higher than normal local labor rates. A shipyard that during the year relies on a regular crew of hourly contractors may find its pool drying up as these workers seek and take more lucrative assignments. To address this issue, a company may want to plan in advance for incentives (e.g., bonuses or temporary higher pay) or contractual language that will keep their regular workers on the job. They may also consider seeking out companies that specialize in placing temporary workers and incorporate those manpower sources into the emergency plan in advance.

A few calm hurricane seasons can lull shipyards and other marine operators into forgetting about the emergency plans on their shelves. But such plans can only serve their purpose if they are current and everyone is ready to carry out their assigned tasks. By working closely with their insurance agent and carrier, companies can learn about and implement best practices that will give their emergency plans a much better chance of helping them ride out whatever storm comes their way.   

(As published in the August 2012 edition of Maritime Reporter -

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