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Bracing for the Storm

HOUSTON -- Hurricane Katrina's visit to New Orleans was bad news for the nation's energy industry but if Hurricane Rita makes a similar visit to Houston, it could be even worse, the Houston Chronicle reported.

There are 10 refineries in the Houston area, representing as much as 13 percent of the nation's refining capacity. These facilities and chemical plants, located on the bays and bayous in Harris and Galveston counties, are at risk from storm surges like those that came with Katrina, the Chronicle reported.

According to the newspaper, one worst-case scenario modeled by Houston engineering firm, Dodson & Associates, predicts that a Category 5 storm coming ashore near Freeport could send a wind-driven surge of water up Galveston Bay and into the Ship Channel. Such a storm would swamp many of these facilities, according to the study. The city is home to the nation's largest refinery, Exxon Mobil's Baytown facility, which processes 557,000 barrels per day.

Hurricane Rita may not pack the same punch as the storm envisioned in the study, and Houston is not below sea level like most of New Orleans. But with four refineries still out because of damage from Katrina, any lost capacity could add to high gasoline prices.

It's been more than 20 years since the Houston-area felt the full brunt of a hurricane.

"People think there was a national impact from Katrina," Chris Johnson, president of Dodson & Assoc., told the Chronicle . "But if a storm that size hits here it will be a bigger deal."

When Katrina came ashore in Louisiana last month, flooding and downed power lines crippled many onshore oil and gas facilities, including more than 10 percent of the country's refining capacity. The last time Houston was hit by a large storm was August 1983's Hurricane Alicia. The storm came ashore on Galveston Island as a Category 3 storm, knocking out more than one-third of the area's power. However, facilities such as Exxon's Baytown refinery and most units at what was then Arco Chemical's Channel View plant remained operating throughout, the Chronicle reported.

Refineries and chemical plants are designed to handle heavy winds, and facilities built along the coast take flooding into consideration as well. But no one can predict how well they'll handle a hurricane. The power lines that feed refineries are susceptible to high winds. Two large power plants run by Texas Genco sit on the south shore of the Ship Channel. The power company told the Chronicle they have been designed to handle storm surges.

Royal Dutch Shell's 1,500-acre chemical plant and refinery complex in Deer Park sits between 10 feet and 25 feet above sea level, spokesman David McKinney told the Chronicle . During 2001's Tropical Storm Allison about 4 inches of water accumulated over many parts of the property, but since then the company has upgraded storm water pumps and improved drainage.

In Texas City, home to BP's refinery (processing 437,000 barrels a day) and a Valero facility (210,000 barrels a day), 15-to-20-foot seawalls are designed to keep storm surges at bay.

"We've looked at some modeling that shows the industrial sector, including our site, to be in a reasonably good position," said Neil Geary, BP Texas City's communications manager, in a Chronicle report.

"If we had Katrina-like storm surges at the 20-foot level, we'd see some local refinery flooding," Valero spokeswoman Mary Rose Brown told the Chronicle . She said the company's St. Charles, La., refinery was hit hard by Katrina, but good planning allowed it to recover quickly.

In Freeport, managers at Dow Chemical's 5,000-acre production facility are watching Rita warily. According to the Chronicle , the facility hasn't seen a major storm since Hurricane Carla in 1961, said spokesman Dave Winder, which brought significant flooding. There have been improvements made to the levy system since, which now reaches about 16 feet high and is expected to withstand a Category 3 storm.

Since Monday, most local companies have taken precautions, such as removing scaffolding, tying down loose items that could become airborne in heavy winds and removing things that could clog storm drains. Most refineries and chemical plants need to decide whether or not to shut down processes about 72 hours before a storm hits, David Harpole, a spokesman for Lyondell Chemical, which operates a number of local refineries and chemical plants, told the Chronicle .

"Protecting workers and the community are top priorities, but companies work to protect their physical assets, too," said Chris Miller, a spokeswoman for chemical maker Rohm and Haas reported to the Chronicle . "That could mean bringing them down in an orderly shutdown, working off raw materials onsite, not accepting additional materials and shipping products out ahead of the storm."

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