SAFETY

Preparation Leads to Timely, Safe Response for Hurricanes

Medium Retina | Safe Response for Hurricanes

In 2017, flooding from Hurricane Harvey washed out this Union Pacific bridge in Texas.

To keep freight flowing in the Gulf Coast area known for hurricanes named Andrew, Camille, Harvey and Katrina, various railroad professionals from UP’s Engineering, Public Affairs and Transportation departments recently reached outside of the company to review and coordinate their severe weather plans.

Leading the figurative and almost literal “charge,” Drew Tessier, senior director-Public Affairs, Corporate Relations, and Jacob Gilsdorf, general director-Maintenance of Way (MofW), Engineering, met with representatives from Entergy, an electricity provider for customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. They discussed best practices to safely restore power and quickly clean up post-storm damage and debris.

Not if, but when a tropical storm or hurricane affects the Gulf Coast, the service unit enlists help from Blackout Power LLC’s personnel who check the affected area’s tracks for downed power lines and test if they’re live. UP then notifies Entergy who tells the field what lines may be removed.

“This process allows for quicker cleanup,” Gilsdorf said. “You have critical institutions such as hospitals, grocery stores and schools that need attention, and there’s only so much help to go around. By giving us permission to move the lines ourselves, what could possibly take days, weeks or even months, we’re able to handle in 12 to 24 hours.”

In turn, UP grants access to its rights of way to serve as staging areas for nonrailroad groups who’re helping with local power restoration and cleanup efforts.   

Planning Overdrive

When forecasters start naming a tropical storm or hurricane, UP’s team members huddle and launch their plan of action, which includes staging equipment and personnel in nearby areas based on landfall forecasts. The logistics of moving crews means coordinating transportation, and arranging for food and water, as well as lodging.

“We could have up to 200 employees involved,” Gilsdorf said. “We try to reserve rooms; but if there aren’t enough available, we create our own ‘camps’ to ensure our employees are housed.”

Planners adhere to a comprehensive checklist to ensure an efficient, organized effort. Leaders such as Gilsdorf and others describe it as a monumental task to prepare for and respond to severe weather events, and they have high praise for those professional railroaders who make it look “easy.”

Thousands of gallons of fuel are positioned to operate 800 to 1,000 field generators that power active warning and control devices such as bells, flashing lights and gates. Ballast trains also dot the landscape, so they’re ready to aid the restoration process.
“We’ve become good at dealing with hurricanes and tropical storms,” said Gilsdorf, who notes their efforts are always guided by employee and public safety.

Since he began his role as general director in 2017, Gilsdorf said UP’s storm teams have worked without a reportable incident or injury.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just management; it’s our team of professional railroaders who are on the ground removing trees, replacing crossing arms, etc. They’re the reason we have so much success. We all work together.”

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