Preparing for a future natural disaster

June 24, 2019 By    

Most propane retailers do not have to deal with the impacts of volcanic eruptions. Zoe Williams of Hawaii Gas is not that lucky.

A school with propane tanks damaged by a tornado. Photo courtesy of logica3

A school with propane tanks damaged by a tornado. Photo courtesy of logica3

“Last year, propane was critical for heating water and for cooking during severe weather, flooding and volcanic evacuations,” says Williams.

But like so many other propane professionals and customers, Williams appreciates how propane came to the rescue to serve communities when no other energy source was available.

“Propane is an energy source that outlasts any situation, especially in emergency preparation, response and recovery,” she continues.

It’s a story we hear time and again.

First line of defense

Along with emergency responders, propane professionals are often among the first on the scene of a natural disaster, fulfilling energy needs that other fuels cannot.

Propane’s coordinated response to Hurricane Sandy is one of many such episodes. Hurricane Sandy caused nearly $70 billion in damage when it made landfall in 2012. It was the United States’ second-costliest hurricane on record until Hurricanes Harvey and Maria struck in 2017. Hurricane Sandy affected 24 states, especially the Eastern Seaboard in New York, New England and New Jersey.

Those state associations and propane companies closed ranks and worked together to respond to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

It was essential that consumers understood the propane safety concerns that accompany a hurricane. Working with the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) and the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA), propane companies and state affiliates were able to get those messages out.

In the meantime, teams of propane professionals helped first responders and other volunteers install propane-powered generators and cooking equipment while going door-to-door to ensure thousands of residents were safe and to inspect and replace damaged equipment that had been submerged.

There are times when conditions on the ground, such as flooding and damaged equipment, make it difficult, if not impossible, for local propane providers to deliver fuel to customers following a natural disaster. This is an especially critical situation for hospitals, nursing homes and elderly residents.

It should come as no surprise how quickly propane professionals mobilize to help strangers and competitors during these challenging situations. When it comes to safety, these folks don’t compete. They act by focusing on how they can deploy resources such as fuel, equipment and manpower without any thought to their own costs.

Preparing employees and customers

Hawaii Gas’ Darin Yoshioka hauls a 20-pound cylinder across a washed-out road in Kauai. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Gas.

Hawaii Gas’ Darin Yoshioka hauls a 20-pound cylinder across a washed-out road in Kauai. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Gas.

You name it, and the propane industry has experienced it, whether it be floods, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis or mudslides.

There is a common theme for those companies that have weathered the storm: Prepare.

“Planning based on a scenario where you have to run your business and supply your customers without the usual day-to-day resources is some of the best preparation for your company’s disaster response,” said Dave Latourell, director of safety and transportation for Paraco Gas, during a panel discussion at this year’s National Safety & Trainer’s Conference in San Antonio.

During last year’s NPGA Southeastern Convention & International Propane Expo, Scott Weatherford, director of safety and compliance for Blossman Gas, participated in a panel where he presented on pre-hurricane preparation, focusing on employees and their families, company equipment and customer communication. He outlined a plan for each of these key priorities during an emergency:

  • Employers need to think about and plan for the impact on employees’ families. Make sure to assign someone whose responsibility it is to maintain a family contact list and ensure that communication procedures are followed. Knowing their families are well reduces employees’ stress when responding to a natural disaster.
  • Company equipment, including delivery vehicles and dispensers, may be damaged and unusable. Emergency gas supplies and supply chain integrity, back-up generators, and vehicle location and assessment are three critical elements for which to plan, as well as recurrent employee response training.
  • Customers will look to their propane suppliers for support and assistance. Make sure that complete customer lists, cylinder plant location, service announcements and prioritization of calls are well established.

Speaking on the same panel, Jeff Stewart, president of Blue Star Gas, discussed his experience with the 2017 Santa Rosa firestorm in Northern California.

Stewart focused on communications planning, as apparently local authorities did not communicate during the firestorm, most likely because they were unable to do so.

In terms of cellular communications, Stewart stressed “plan not to have it,” but to ensure that you do:

  • Use an automated call service.
  • Maintain mutual response agreements up to 100 miles away.
  • Use digital two-way radio systems.

Current weather forecasting technologies often allow ample time to inform customers to prepare for an impending natural disaster such as a hurricane, flood or a major snowfall.

Many propane professionals take advantage of that lead time to remind customers about the need to ensure they have enough propane to get through a nasty weather event and to turn off propane systems – not turning them back on until they are inspected and deemed safe to use – if evacuation is required.

Attack without warning

Of course, some natural disasters such as wildfires and tornadoes may attack with little warning. But that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for them.

Joy Alafia, president and CEO of the Western Propane Gas Association (WPGA), stresses the need to coordinate with first responders prior to the disaster to establish such critical elements as staging locales, chains of command and standby support.

“Disaster preparedness is critical not just for retailers but also for associations who can play an integral role with coordination and communication,” Alafia told an audience at the National Safety & Trainer’s Conference.

Alafia led the WPGA through last year’s Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California’s history.

“During and after the Camp [Fire] wildfire, it was critical to maintain industry conference calls, assist first responders with any daily strategies and resource allocation, and to conduct tank inspections,” she added.

As with wildfires, tornadoes often don’t provide time to react, making pre-planning even more valuable. Paula Laney, director of safety, education and training with the Oklahoma LP Gas Research, Marketing and Safety Commission, knows all about tornadoes.

“They can strike with little to no warning. That’s why it’s critical to have established emergency response protocols and procedures in place,” says Laney.

She regularly works with local propane professionals such as Kevin Froman, owner of Froman Oil & Propane, and local first responders to train for such events.

Luck is not preparation

Foster Fuels, a third-generation and family-owned-and-operated energy provider based in Brookneal, Virginia, deploys its Mission Critical division during natural disasters. Photo courtesy of Foster Fuels.

Foster Fuels, a third-generation and family-owned-and-operated energy provider based in Brookneal, Virginia, deploys its Mission Critical division during natural disasters. Photo courtesy of Foster Fuels

Do not confuse luck with continuous preparation before, during and after a natural disaster. It’s only lucky if you never have to deploy the strategies and tactics developed in preparing for one.

According to the OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, natural disasters in the United States contributed to about 260 deaths in 2016. That does not include the wildfires, hurricanes, floods and volcanic eruptions experienced since.

From tornadoes in the Midwest to hurricanes and flooding in Florida and Texas, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information indicates that, in 2017, there were 16 billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events in the United States.

Planning for natural disasters and deploying resources when they occur are complex, difficult and costly. That’s why not every company does it.

But propane marketers have access to resources that can address these challenges – from federal and local governments, their fellow propane professionals, PERC and NPGA.

Take advantage of these resources. You’ll be glad you did and lucky if you never have to use them.

Propane generators

Hurricane Preparedness Week took place in early May. Hurricanes cause massive power outages that can last hours or even days. Whether it’s a hurricane or a strong storm, homeowners can prepare for a power outage with propane generators.

When equipped with an automatic transfer switch, a propane standby generator can produce supplemental electricity, often in as little as 10 seconds after primary power failure. A 7-kW standby generator drawing fuel from a 250-gallon propane tank can provide enough electricity to power a home for up to five days.

A propane generator can be added whether a home is powered by propane or electricity.

Flood preparedness

A home propane system, at left, submerged in floodwater. Photo Courtesy of Logica3

A home propane system, at left, submerged in floodwater. Photo Courtesy of logica3

In many parts of the United States and Canada, heavy rain and spring thaws cause dangerous floods that can interrupt propane supply. The Canadian Propane Association’s (CPA) flood safety tips are valuable for any propane retailer looking to educate customers on flood preparedness.

In flood-prone areas, make sure customers take these safety precautions:

  • Anchor fuel tanks. Propane tanks, even full ones, will float in water.
  • Learn how and where to shut off the gas supplies to a propane tank and appliances.
  • Make sure the family knows the smell of propane – like rotten eggs or a skunk.
  • Keep a good supply of propane in the tank, as a flood could disrupt deliveries.

The CPA also encourages customers to talk to local propane retailers about the possibility of temporarily removing propane tanks, hot water tanks and appliances, as well as the electrical components of furnaces. If appliances are removed, piping should be plugged or capped.

PERC also maintains a portfolio of materials to communicate to customersbefore, during and after any natural disaster. Get the latest at

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