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A Parable from History: Ignoring the Oncoming Storm

By Michael A Taube on 10 October 17

It’s September 6, 1900, a beautiful sunny day on the central Texas coast: partly cloudy, typical winds, and everyone carrying on with their lives just as they did every day.  They had no idea 48 hours later the city that had been Texas’ commercial hub would lie in ruins.  All homes and buildings, except those constructed of brick, are completely demolished and roughly ten thousand people dead.  In fact, so many were dead that many bodies had to be dumped into the Gulf of Mexico because there was no other way to dispose of them.

This was the fate of the city of Galveston, Texas, when hit by the great hurricane of 1900 on September 8.  While many of us may be familiar with the “big story,” as taught by history, there is another story behind the story:  It’s the reason why the people of Galveston had no idea they were about to become part of the deadliest natural disaster to hit the continental United States.

The people of Galveston were let down by the failure of the National Weather Bureau (the precursor to our modern National Weather Service) to properly recognize the signs and heed the warnings that a hurricane was coming and to take appropriate action.

How One of the US’s Largest Disasters Happened

The storm was first officially spotted at sea on August 27, approximately 1,000 miles east of the US coast.  Gaining strength as it moved westward, when it reached the Florida Straits on September 5, it was almost certainly up to hurricane strength.  On September 7, just the outer edges were enough to cause significant damage to New Orleans.

One might say, “But communications were poor in 1900!”  However, by September 4, the main NWB office in DC was well aware of the storm.  Their assumption was that it would simply head up the Atlantic coast.  However, storm spotters at their Cuba office were telling a different story: it was going to pick up energy in the Gulf of Mexico and slam into the US Gulf Coast.  

With years of field experience to their credit, experts in Cuba understood how storms could behave.  However, the NWB chief disagreed and overruled every increasingly-desperate communication from Cuban meteorologists.  In fact, he even refused to use the word “hurricane” in official communications for fear of causing a panic!  So no official warning was ever released ahead of time.  Some reports even claim that independent meteorologists and storm-watchers in the area took it upon themselves to try to warn people personally of the oncoming disaster, but it was to no avail.

By disregarding critical field intelligence, and having a “stay the course” or worse, an “I know better”, attitude, the head of the NWB guaranteed that thousands would be dead.  

A Failure to Heed the Signs of an Oncoming Storm in the HPI

In previous articles, I have discussed the attitudes within Hydrocarbon Processing Industry (HPI) management circles regarding the accelerating loss of knowledge and experience.   It’s quite easy to see the parallels here:  for over a decade, HPI Management has been receiving reports on the “experience gap” – the loss of irreplaceable experience – but the situation was allowed to continue: at most getting “band-aid” solutions or, worse, only “lip service”.  HPI Management has been fully informed about the situation, but they choose to ignore the warnings in favor of hoping for a best-case scenario outcome.  Over Twenty (20) years of the “do more with less” philosophy has resulted in most organizations being so minimaxed they have no capacity to deal with unexpected scenarios, a sudden need for manpower and/or the need for specific expertise or knowledge.  So now businesses at-large, and particularly the HPI, are facing the “Great Crew Change” problem: Most of their experienced engineers are nearing retirement age, but -due to downsizing- most of the rest of their workforce is in their twenties and thirties.  There is an entirely predictable problem – an oncoming storm – that many in HPI are not addressing:  as their most experienced engineers and leaders retire (or have already done so), there are not enough younger trained, mentored and experienced workers ready to take their place.  The result will be the possibility and higher probability of even more disasters occurring in the future like that of Deep-Water Horizon.

What must be done

To summarize:

  • There is no substitute for trained and experienced personnel.
  • There is no substitute for listening to experienced field personnel.
  • More expertise only improves, not hinders, any operation.

As the on-going loss of experience continues to create an impending storm for the HPI, more effort is required to train, develop and mentor engineers and first level management by experienced personnel still engaged in the industry.  That is, the HPI must reinvestment in personnel development and training and increasing staffing levels.  ‘Doing more with less’ cannot be an effective mantra for the HPI; it was never “effective”, but it took two generations for its ineptness to manifest: It creates much greater problems than it tries to solve from an economic point of view.

As long as the HPI industry insists on ignoring the warning signs – telling themselves that the storm of less talent and skills needed to operate optimally isn’t on the horizon – the higher the probability that more incidents like the Deep Water Horizon will happen.

This ‘storm’ is coming for the HPI. It’s time to take heed and take action by reinvesting in People to avert a disaster of unprecedented proportions.

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