The massive storm roared out of the darkness of the Gulf of Mexico at 10 p.m. on Friday, August 25, and slammed into South Texas with winds of more than 130 miles per hour. The hurricane leveled homes and businesses in Port Aransas and Rockport with a force likened by one resident to “a bomb blast going off.”
After a brief foray inland, Harvey weakened, did an about-face, and tracked back over the warm waters of the Gulf. Now a tropical storm, it stalled over Houston for nearly five days, dropping upwards of 50 inches of rain in some areas and causing widespread catastrophic flooding.
Days before impact, ExxonMobil teams were preparing: shutting in production and evacuating crews from offshore platforms; assembling workers at its refining and chemical complexes in Baytown and Beaumont to shut down facilities safely; evaluating the effects of potentially idle pipelines and marketing terminals on gasoline and product supplies; and setting up emergency response and monitoring centers, human resource hotlines, and recovery action plans after the storm passed.
When the rains began to fall and the waters began to rise, thousands of people – including hundreds of employees and their families – were forced from their homes, many of them given little time to gather what they could before evacuating.
We could fill the pages of this magazine with their accounts, because when an event like this occurs, it affects everyone, regardless of where you live, the position you have in the company or how long you have worked in your job. The stories here are a small example of the wider impact and response to the storm – the heroism of first responders and volunteers, the taking in of families in need, the rescuing of the suddenly homeless, the delivery of food and water to the hungry, and more.
There's a commonality to these stories that encompasses not only caring for one's immediate family, but also for the wider community. They also show an incredible dedication to helping the company get its operations safely up and running again in order to supply energy to where it’s needed. Pervading each of these accounts is the knowledge that when disaster strikes, none of us has to go it alone.
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Steve Hart, vice president global supply and transportation, Houston
“Throughout the entire organization, there was an urgency and a dedication. We had many employees suffering flood damage. But while the storm was still going on, we were working issues together over the phone. Only later did I learn that this person or that person had his or her house flood. You would have never known it on the phone. Their dedication is so high that there were times you had to tell them, ‘Hey, go take care of yourself. We'll get someone else to cover until you get back.’
“Our people are not looking for accolades for what they do. They realize that their work will not be fully seen by the public, and they don't expect it would be. They know what they're doing is helping – helping their community, and helping by getting fuel to customers in a time of need.”
Kristy McCarty, environmental department lead, Beaumont complex
“During a shutdown, you can’t skip steps. My role before, during and after the storm was to ensure that we compliantly and safely shut down. Our team was in constant contact with regulatory agencies. It was great to see people coming together as a team to solve problems, and how willing everyone was to make environmental compliance a priority.”
Jimmy Smith, process mechanical supervisor, Baytown complex
“Shutting down a refinery safely during a storm is crucial because with the winds and the rains and potential flooding, if you don’t have the proper planning, you could have a significant impact on the environment, and to the safety of our people.
“The toughest part was seeing my fellow employees impacted. There were so many employees out there trying to take care of their homes and families. There was so much devastation out there.”
Arce Sambilay, console supervisor, Baytown complex
“Saturday night, I started my shift, and we were monitoring the radar. At 2 a.m., it started raining, and it never stopped. So, we began to shut down the plant, and we went into live-in conditions. I was here for four more days as a live-in.
“I've lived in Baytown for 30 years, and I've never seen as much water on the roads in all that time. At the plant, everybody pitched in. You didn't have to ask people; they were there. There was never just one person working on just one thing.
“It was always at least two people or a team of people responding together. Everybody pitched in.”
Reno Castillo, instrumentation specialist, Baytown complex
“I wasn't able to get to the plant. My house has been here 30 years and has never flooded before. The only way in and out was by boat. But I did a lot of troubleshooting over the phone throughout the storm with my colleagues. A friend and I were helping in the neighborhood, and we came back to my place and tied up his boat in my driveway. I got a call and was actually sitting on my wet couch, and we worked through an issue.
“Every day, someone from the company would call and ask, ‘Is your family OK? Do you have food? Do you have a place to stay? Do you need help at your house? Do you need gas, dehumidifiers, supplies?’
“And then, when the storm was over, they sent workers here to help tear out Sheetrock, insulation and flooring. It had been just me, my wife and son trying to get all that work done. Man, what a tremendous difference it made.”
Richard Bowen, national account manager, Fuels, Lubes and Specialties Marketing, Houston
“After evacuating our home, I was safe in a relative’s home and watching news coverage of the storm when the reporter in a boat turned down a familiar street – my street.
“That’s when the reality of the situation began to set in. There was our house, on national television. We could see that we had suffered a devastating loss. We were numb.
“Then, without us even asking, help began to arrive. An ExxonMobil employee came with cleaning supplies. Then a professional remediation crew, arranged and paid for by ExxonMobil, arrived to clean out our house.
“During one of the most difficult times in our lives, the company was there for me. I am truly grateful and thankful for the assistance. It makes me even prouder to say that I work for ExxonMobil.”
Steve Garcia, safety coordinator, Baytown complex
“One of the things I saw personally was the way the community came together. I saw some of our firefighters from the refinery on TV going into a flooded subdivision and taking people out in their personal boats. It was like they were taking care of what had to be done outside the refinery, while we were taking care of what had to be done inside the refinery.
“Later, I personally participated in the transport of 2,000 pounds of food and a whole lot of water. I can't even remember how many loads we did.”
Dan Misko, engineer, Beaumont complex
“The city's water-treatment facility was knocked out by the flood. So we got a team together to think through, ‘How do we solve this problem?’
“We expanded to about 60 employees and contractors, and we quickly developed a solution: bring in temporary pumps and 600 feet of pipelines, and draw water from the river to the treatment plant. Roads into and out of the city were impassable, so we had to fix this with the people we had in Beaumont. It took all of us working together to secure the resources and materials to actually go out and do this. While we were working to get the treatment plant back, other teams were bringing in pallets of water and other essentials by helicopter.
“I was working a dual role – doing my job at the refinery while trying to get clean water back up and running to the city, which we did. The other thing the team did was secure the electrical infrastructure for the treatment facility. That was at risk of taking on water, and if it did, all of our efforts would be futile. It took us about eight hours to build a sandbag levee around the infrastructure to stop that from happening.”
Byrd Reed, mechanical craftsman, Baytown complex
“The ‘Texas Strong’ motto says it all. It means helping other people. Somebody gets a boat, somebody gets this, somebody gets that, and we show up and do what we have to do to get them out of harm's way.
“It's been a wonderful thing in a disastrous situation to see all of these people come together and say, ‘Hey, I just want to help. No, it doesn't cost you anything. We just want to help.’”
Joey Hanks, shift team lead, Baytown Olefins Plant
“When you pull up to the first house to help, and you see the homeowner looking just lost, that's when it becomes personal.
“One lady we helped was a school bus driver all her life who'd saved her money and had paid her mortgage off two months before Harvey struck. She lost everything. She didn't have flood insurance. And she said to me, ‘What do I do?’ And all you can do is to try to tell her that it will be OK.
“But when you see people at their lowest low, and you help them and see them smile by the end of the day, then you know you're doing your job.”
Laura Hanks, planning and scheduling first line supervisor, Baytown Technology and Engineering complex
“It became personal for me when I arrived at one house and realized that the owner was a retired ExxonMobil employee who'd been my mentor, and had actually helped me get hired by the company. After looking around his house, we both broke down.
“He was trying to be so strong for his wife and kids in the face of all the destruction. He'd held it in. He took me aside and told me everything they'd been through. I was his sounding board. Sometimes, that's all a person needs – a good hug and a good, ‘I love you, we've got this.’”
Ashley Alemayehu, public and government affairs manager, Beaumont complex
“Like many other companies in the area, we were ready to step in to help when the City of Beaumont called. It was a true collaborative effort between the city and private sector to get water back on for residents.
“I was going back and forth between the refinery, the water plant and the city’s emergency operations center helping in whatever way I could. We have a long relationship with Beaumont, and I think it has strengthened even further.”
For more stories and photos from the storm, visit ExxonMobil's Energy Factor.