Disaster Management Done Right

By Joseph Straw

A disaster plan helped two NASA facilities prepare for the worst of Hurricane Katrina and provide support to communities in need.

Hurricane Katrina might have caught most of the federal government flat-footed, but not its biggest contractor, Lockheed Martin.

The company’s Space Systems division operates at two major sites on the Gulf Coast: NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and the John C. Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

Lockheed Martin runs the Michoud plant for NASA, where the agency manufactures the Space Shuttle’s massive external fuel tanks. The 15-story tanks are built inside the plant, transferred onto barges, then—weather permitting—floated down the Mississippi across the Gulf of Mexico and around Key West, Florida, en route to Cape Canaveral.

The Stennis Space Center is NASA’s largest rocket engine testing facility and host to its Applied Research and Technology Project, which brings us stunning satellite images of everything from el Niño to swarms of locusts over the Sinai.

When Katrina hit, NASA was expecting an external tank from Michoud and a Lockheed Martin satellite from the Stennis Center. The storm shut down the facilities for 12 and 15 days, respectively, and turned Stennis into a small town of displaced area residents. But NASA got the tank and the satellite, on time.

The main reason was that despite roof leaks, Michoud’s low elevation, and a direct hit from Katrina’s eye wall on Bay St. Louis, neither facility flooded.

Why? It was the pumps, said Tom Watson, a senior security manager at Lockheed Martin. But those vital pumps might have been rendered useless if Lockheed Martin had not staffed the sites with electricians, Watson told attendees at ASIS International’s 25th Annual Conference on Global Terrorism in Arlington, Virginia.

Watson differentiated between electricians and electrical engineers. The latter, he pointed out, can design solutions but not implement them.

In addition to having the right personnel on the site, the company made sure that both facilities were stocked before the storm with enough cash to support skeleton staffs until normal operations resumed. Credit cards, even checks, would have been worthless.

Also, before the storm hit, the company had taken the time to establish a web of multiple contacts at multiple locations to ensure communications and situational awareness after landfall. Amid terrestrial network breakdowns, company officials were able to communicate via standard text (SMS) messaging on their cellular phones. Emergency satellite phones worked, but devoured batteries.

Site managers were authorized to assume ad hoc, autonomous leadership of the sites. As NASA opened Stennis to federally run relief and recovery efforts, Lockheed Martin opened its own building at Stennis—powered by three massive generators—for use as a command center by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

During the storm Michoud housed a “rideout” staff of roughly 50, while the same number of Lockheed Martin workers returned to Stennis immediately after the storm, many housed in 24 trailers the company placed on the site.

Stennis would ultimately house 3,700 area residents; some were additional workers and families, but most were members of the general public relocated by FEMA from ravaged coastal areas. Some stayed in facility buildings, others in tents and FEMA trailers outside.

“One day you might be a site manager, the next you might be the mayor of a small city that’s landed on your site,” said Jim R. Barton, Lockheed Martin’s director of strategic planning and a member of the ASIS International Council on Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime, sponsor of the event.

Such a situation can pose difficult, potentially explosive questions—in particular, who gets to stay in trailers and who doesn’t, and whether trailers should be co-ed, Watson said.

Companies with a stake in disaster response can reach out to area governments to let them know of their plans and the role they are likely to play. They should work out issues such as when and how to acquire special radio chips to descramble digital public safety radio transmissions in a crisis, Watson said.

Another issue that should be worked out ahead of time is the need to obtain emergency air transportation clearances from the authorities. As Lockheed Martin pilots learned during the company’s response to Katrina, private airplanes, including corporate jets, can fly over federally declared disaster areas, but they cannot land without special clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, Watson said.

Before disaster hits, companies should cross-train security personnel in other specialties, and management should survey all employees to determine whether they have any specialized skills that might be useful in a disaster.

“Is someone an EMT [emergency medical technician] in their time off? Maybe one’s not a licensed carpenter, but they’re a carpenter,” Watson said. Another piece of advice Watson shared: Everyone should be well informed. With that in mind, his company borrowed a page from the U.S. Marine Corps’ playbook: “Everyone knows the plan,” he said.

The company also made sure to have certain supplies, such as hand sanitizer for washing without running water, Watson said. Also useful: colored, adhesive dots, commonly sold at office supply stores. The stickers can be issued to identify employees, recovery officials, or others in the absence of security badges.

Watson recalled a company executive’s account of his return to the Stennis Center. He left his car and heard silence he had never experienced before. “Even the insects were gone,” he said.

But life soon began to return, as Watson showed in a picture of an alligator creeping around one of Lockheed Martin’s facilities. “Watch out for them too,” Watson said. “They’ll come gitcha.”



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