In August of 2021, Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans, a major rail shipping hub. The destructive weather and resulting flood waters forced a Class I railroad, the Kansas City Southern, to close a main line. This triggered a cascade of additional railroads seeing service disruptions as well, even if they were not near the hurricane. Nearly all rail shippers experienced interruptions, even if they themselves were not near Hurricane Ida.
Few natural disasters are as far reaching, as devastating, and as unpredictable as hurricanes. Hurricane season is a time of year when residents and businesses along the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico carefully monitor the forecast and prepare for the challenges presented by hurricanes.
If you ship by rail, or even have rail involved in your supply chain, how do you overcome the challenge of a hurricane impacting your operations? We’ll look at how you, and the rail industry overall, can prepare and recover quickly from the devastation of a hurricane.
2022 Hurricane Forecast
An important aspect of preparing your rail-based supply chain for hurricane season is knowing what you are preparing for! Is it going to be an average, better than average, or worse than average season? The answer likely impacts how rigorous your preparations are.
2022 looks like it will be an above average Atlantic hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center releases a yearly update of what the hurricane season is likely to look like. This year’s peak hurricane season, roughly August to October, has a likelihood of being above average in intensity.
Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo urges “everyone to remain vigilant as we enter the peak months of hurricane season.” Although forecasters have slightly decreased the likelihood of an above-normal hurricane season, it still stands at a 60% chance of being worse than normal.
“We’re just getting into the peak months of August through October for hurricane development, and we anticipate that more storms are on the way”, says Rick Spinrad, Ph.D., the NOAA Administrator. The peak hurricane season lasts through October, but the overall season ends on November 30th.
The NOAA expects a possible 14 to 20 named storms, which means they have winds of 39 miles per hour or greater; 6 to 10 of these storms could become hurricanes, meaning they have winds of 74 miles per hour or more. And of those 6 to 10, 3 to 5 could be major, potentially devastating hurricanes with winds of more than 111 miles per hour.
Although the season has so far, not shown any signs of being above average, that doesn’t mean it still can’t happen. Preparation is key!
Preparing for a Hurricane as a Rail Shipper
If you ship or receive rail, being prepared during hurricane season is important, particularly if you are in an area that is traditionally affected directly.
Taking steps for hurricane preparedness can help you endure the season and stay operational.
Prepare by Monitoring Communications
The best practice for year-round preparation is to sign up for communication channels. We recommend making sure your key headquarters and plant personnel are registered with the railroad websites, so that they can receive updates and information directly from the railroads instead of receiving information secondhand. It is a good idea to sign up to receive railroad updates by email; all the railroads offer service notifications. Similarly, sign up to receive railroad embargo notices and Association of American Railroads (AAR) embargo communications; this way, you are knowledgeable about how weather conditions may affect your rail shipments, even if they are not directly in the area of a storm.
For more information on embargoes, you can check out our blog on what embargoes are and how you can prepare for them.
A storm is coming, and your rail operations are going to be in the predicted storm path. But you’re aware of this ahead of time because you took the preparations to receive communications about the storm. So how do you prepare for the inevitable?
The following recommendations should be taken as early as possible, at least five days before the hurricane makes landfall.
- Divert any inbound flow of cars to your operations. You don’t want your rail being affected, but you also don’t want your suppliers or your other facilities to have their rail operations be affected because they tried to send you inbound cars in a hurricane.
- Re-bill inbound cars that contain secure or sensitive materials, such as materials labeled as a Toxic Inhalation Hazard or Poison Inhalation Hazard. It is recommended to get these cars out of the storm’s reach as soon as possible.
- Notify the railroad of special requirements for your cars, including unit train and special switch.
- Notify the railroad of your timetable for ceasing your facility and plant operations.
Post-Storm AAR Rules
The AAR has a series of Interchange Rules, and under these rules, your customers are responsible for any damage, including flood damage, that occurs to cars in their control or possession. This also includes cars that a railroad has delivered to a private track or facility. The reverse is also true, and you are responsible for damage that occurs to cars that are at your facilities, but you do not own.
This is designed to make sure that customers are paying attention to the railcars under their supervision instead of placing the responsibility on those who own the railcars.
The Interchange Rules also require railcars that are damaged from hurricane flooding to go through a joint inspection with the railroad and the customer who has the railcars.
To ensure that these Interchange Rules are followed, the AAR requires that all interchange freight car owners must subscribe to the Interchange Rules. Customers who are not subscribed to the rules are responsible for repairs to cars damaged while they have the cars in their possession.
If you suspect or see that the minimum water level has reached the RED line on a car, take the following actions:
- Report to the railroad all your railcars and their location.
- Do not move the railcars until they are released by the railroad’s mechanical department.
After a hurricane comes through, you will need to assess the damage, schedule repairs, update your operations teams, and begin the cleanup to resume your rail service.
- Report any tracks that are damaged and/or out of service to the railroad.
- Let the railroad know the estimated time frame for repairs to your facility and when you plan to resume operations. This will allow the railroad to know when to place tracks back in service and deploy rail cars as needed.
- Once repairs are complete and you know when your plant will resume operations, notify the railroad and request for the rail service to resume.
- Don’t move rail cars if the water has reached the railcar’s wheel bearing. Wait for the railroad to inspect the car and make sure it’s safe to move.
- Per the AAR’s Interchange Rules we looked at above, any rail cars that have been damaged by flooding must undergo a joint inspection between the railroad’s mechanical team and personnel at your rail served operations.
As the hurricane season progresses, you can continue to track the weather and conditions closely. By reviewing the current embargoes on the AAR or a railroad’s website you can see if your area or areas your operations are in are impacted.
Preparing for a Hurricane if Your Supply Chain Involves Rail
What if you don’t ship by rail, but part of your supply chain does involve rail in some way? Maybe your supplier uses rail to have components delivered to build a product for you, or the materials you require that are delivered by truck make much of the journey by rail.
Hurricane season can affect your supply chain even if you are not a direct rail shipper. Although there is not as much under your control, many of the same recommendations for rail shippers still apply.
- Download the FEMA app and visit Ready.gov or Listo.gov for preparedness tips.
- Sign up for railroad service and embargo notifications.
- Expect delays when there is a storm and plan accordingly.
- Keep in contact with your rail shippers.
- Be safe!
How Railroads Prepare for Hurricanes
During hurricane season, railroads operating around the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coasts know how important it is to prepare for hurricanes. They track storms to determine the most likely areas of impact and assess the most vulnerable areas.
Their preparations include conducting preliminary maintenance and setting up emergency equipment, materials, and personnel in strategic areas where they can quickly reach large sections of critical track. Railroads often position ballast cars and side dump cars in the storm’s projected path; ballast is the coarse stone used to form the bed of a railroad track, which can sometimes washout during hurricanes.
Railroad communication crews and signal crews both make sure they have generators and fuel on hand in case of a power loss. Crossing gates that could be destroyed by high winds are dismantled. Culverts and ditches along the railroads that keep water flowing are inspected and cleared so that the water doesn’t run into an obstacle and pool up over the tracks.
These are material preparations; operationally, railroads identify where their rail traffic is flowing and then divert trains and rail cars from areas that look like they will be affected. Priority is given to hazardous materials, because the fallout from a storm causing a hazardous material to leak or spill is dangerous. If rail cars and locomotives cannot be moved, they will sometimes be tethered together to hopefully weather the storm.
How Railroads Recover from Hurricanes
Although all the preparations railroads take help them to recover more quickly, hurricanes can be so devastating that no amount of planning can stop some damage from occurring. The rail crew’s primary job is to look at the damage along the rails and send out crews to clear debris and repair tracks.
The preparations that a railroad takes, help them restore operations quickly, but since rail networks in North America are part of a tight network, any disruptions can ripple across the country. Although a hurricane in New Orleans that damages track and disrupts shipping might not seem a big deal to shipping across the country in the Pacific Northwest, a large interruption anywhere can have far reaching disruptions. The farther the interferences reach, the longer it takes for the network to recover.
Whether you directly receive or ship out rail cars, or you are just aware somewhere in your supply chain rail shipping is involved, a hurricane can impact your operations. Since the rail networks in North America are tightly connected, even if your operations are not near a hurricane, you could see a slowdown of service, embargoes, and diverted shipments.
You can prepare for this possibility by making sure that you are subscribed to your railroad’s communications channels, the AAR’s embargo alerts, and the NOAA’s notifications, as well as any local weather station. When your communication channels alert you to an upcoming hurricane in your area, you can take preparations to mitigate the damage and recover more quickly afterwards. The railroads take similar precautions as well and will do their best to recover quickly as well.
Here at RSI Logistics, we have experience helping rail shippers prepare for, withstand, and recover from hurricanes. Click here to talk with us and get a free rail assessment of your operations!