Preparing for the unexpected

06 Nov 2017
Lined up: getting supplies out of the port is a priority post-hurricanes

Lined up: getting supplies out of the port is a priority post-hurricanes

COMMENT: Among US port professionals, the late summer of 2017 will be remembered not for the New York Yankees’ advancing to the baseball playoffs, but, rather for a series of hurricanes leading to both human suffering and business hardships, writes Barry Parker.

Successive storms battered Texas (Hurricane Harvey) and then both east and west coasts of Florida (Hurricane Irma), with the island of Puerto Rico hit next (by Hurricane Maria). As this article was submitted, New Orleans and other Gulf Coast ports were preparing for Hurricane Nate to roar through.

Port planning is all about building infrastructures, systems and procedures that are robust across many different circumstances. A corollary of this discipline is the art of  “preparing for the unexpected”, conjuring up scenarios that hopefully will never happen.

When I talk to folks in the firing line at US ports, this strategy - being prepared for anything - is a recurring theme. Steve Cernak, originally a New Yorker and the 2017-2018 Board Chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities, was in harm’s way as Port Everglades, where he is the Port Director, took gale-force winds from the fringes of Hurricane Irma. Following US Coast Guard orders, Port Everglades - near Fort Lauderdale on Florida’s east coast - went to “Condition Zulu”, effectively a port closure, along with other ports on both coasts of Florida.

Once things got back to normal, Mr Cernak, with an engineering background, provided a brief snippet of his managerial philosophy, saying that: “Business continuity is a priority after, and sometimes during, an emergency. For that reason we focus on planning for a worst-case scenario.”

With an underlying emphasis on the economic engine of port commerce, he went on to explain that: “If the port cannot operate, it has a negative effect on all the businesses we serve and the community we live in.” In the case of Port Everglades, distribution of refined petroleum products (gasoline, aviation fuel, and diesel) was a priority, and special measures were taken not only at vessel terminals but also on the motorways to allow the quick flow of tanker trucks around Broward County of which the port is a department.

Unpredictable events, such as those dealt by Mother Nature in 2017, are a fact of life for port managers. Advance planning, and a mindset of responding quickly, are the keys to resiliency and to getting back in action quickly.

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