CHEMICAL HAZARDSKeeping Communities Safe from Chemical Hazards During Hurricane

Published 1 June 2022

Extreme weather from hurricanes and tropical storms can devastate communities along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts, and the threat of subsequent hazard chemical releases can be just as deadly.

Extreme weather from hurricanes and tropical storms can devastate communities along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts, and the threat of subsequent hazard chemical releases can be just as deadly. Damage to physical infrastructure may lead to hazardous materials like ammonia or chlorine being released from containment, which could pose a serious threat to public health, safety and the environment in the surrounding area. The Department of Homeland Security (DHSScience and Technology Directorate (S&T) actively anticipates and prepares for this possibility.

“As this hurricane season kicks off, we know that the National Hurricane Center is forecasting up to 21 named storms and as many as three to six major hurricanes. We also know this means our federal, state and local emergency response planners will need actionable information about chemical threats and hazards to be prepared,” said Dr. Shannon Fox, director of S&T’s Chemical Security Analysis Center (CSAC). 

Chemical security experts at CSAC provide a 24/7 Technical Assistance hotline (410-417-0910) and execute crucial modeling and analysis on a variety of chemical hazards, vulnerabilities, and incidents—including tropical storms, hurricanes and other severe weather conditions. 

With each storm, actionable information about potential chemical hazards must be readily accessible to emergency planners and first responders in the affected areas. It can mean the difference between life and death for people living near industrial facilities or where trucks and rail systems transport chemicals. This is where S&T experts play a vital role by providing the science-based chemical hazard analytics that inform planning and preparedness, and assist with response activities that can save lives.

“After the path of a hurricane is identified, and hazardous chemicals located at chemical plants in its path are determined, we determine the likely health hazards resulting from a potential release,” said Dr. David Morton, who leads CSAC’s 24/7 response team. “With this data in hand, we use scenario analysis tools, such as the Chemical Consequence and Threat tool, to determine possible impacts to the public. We receive roughly 70 requests per year, with a significant portion during hurricane season, for critical, time-sensitive information to support emergency response efforts.”

CSAC takes six steps to support preparedness and resiliency in the face of extreme weather:

1. Quickly gather information on chemical facility infrastructure in the storm’s path. CSAC collects information from partners and open-source data on chemical facility infrastructure in the projected path of the tropical storm.

2. Assess the danger posed by chemicals held within facilities likely to be in the storm’s path. CSAC assesses the properties of chemicals produced and stored by the facilities identified to understand all hazards they pose if released.

3. Analyze the storm’s forecasted strength and characteristics. CSAC uses sophisticated modeling to assess the effects of forecasted storm surges and high winds, particularly on power generation, which may pose a grave threat to chemical facility infrastructure and related operations and processes that ensure chemical containment and safety.

4. Track the storm’s predicted landfall time and assess potential damage. CSAC assesses the storm’s forecasted time to landfall to provide actionable information on the potential impact of damaged chemical facilities.

5. Remain in close contact with emergency response planners. CSAC works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and specifically FEMA’s Interagency Modeling and Atmospheric Assessment Center, to provide chemical hazard support to FEMA’s national and regional assets.

6. Provide direct information to those in the field who are responding to the storm. CSAC supports the National Guard’s Civil Support Teams for on-the-ground activities before landfall and events as they occur during and post storm evaluation.