Hurricane Ike Puts Alcon’s Emergency Response Plans to the Test

(The following article appeared in the 4Q 2008 issue of Alcon’s quarterly global magazine, Alcon World News. It examines the company’s response to Hurricane Ike.)

In early September – only three years after Alcon Houston dealt with the affects of the most active and destructive Atlantic storm season in recorded history, including the devastating hurricanes Rita and Katrina – the facility was once again called on to implement its emergency plan as another major storm worked its way toward the Gulf Coast city.

Dubbed Hurricane Ike, the approaching storm quickly became one of the largest and most powerful hurricanes on record. At its peak on September 5, it stretched more than 500 miles from edge to edge, and featured winds in excess of 145 miles per hour. Worst of all, the storm was forecasted to reach land just a few miles east of Alcon’s 354,000-square-foot plant near the downtown area, where the company manufactures Custom-Pak® Surgical Packs and consumable products.

After reaching land, Ike’s destructive winds, rain and accompanying surge of water along coastal areas caused widespread flooding and property damage, and cut electrical power to as many as 3 million of the area’s residents and businesses – including Alcon’s Houston plant. Thanks to lessons learned in 2005, however, the response by both area officials and Alcon employees in Houston and Fort Worth served as a striking example of the importance of planning and communication.

Timeline of a Storm

To help illustrate the breadth of Alcon’s preparations and response to this crisis, several key events have been listed in chronological order below:

Early September: Company managers in Houston and Fort Worth begin discussing their options as the storm’s projected route and landfall date (Sept. 13) take shape.

Thursday, Sept. 11: Alcon activates its Corporate Crisis Action Team (CCAT), consisting of representatives from all of the company’s essential business functions. The team holds the first of many conference calls to discuss potential concerns and responses.

  • Based on the size, strength and direction of the storm, the decision is made to close the Houston plant from Friday, Sept. 12 through Sunday, Sept. 14 to allow employees – many of whom are facing mandatory evacuation orders from the local government – to prepare their homes and families.
  • A team of employees from Fort Worth is assembled in case they are needed to travel to Houston in the wake of the storm with generators, water, food and other supplies to help local employees and assist with clean-up.
  • An Around Alcon announcement is distributed company-wide to inform all employees of the situation.

Friday, Sept. 12: Hurricane Ike, with winds at 105 miles per hour, draws closer to the Texas coast, with landfall predicted for late night or early morning the following day.

  • Alcon Houston is secured, and all critical equipment is covered in plastic to help prevent water damage. Computer servers are shut down and also covered.
  • A toll-free telephone number is established, providing employees the ability to call in and report their status. Also, employee contact information is entered into Corporate Security’s mass notification system to enable instant messaging to local employees.
  • The Customer Service team in Fort Worth is enlisted to receive calls from Houston employees during the day, while the Corporate Security team covers calls during nighttime hours.

Saturday, Sept. 13: Hurricane Ike makes landfall approximately 50 miles from the Alcon Houston facility, causing widespread flooding and power outages in the area.

  • The only damage reported at the plant is slight water leakage into the Manufacturing and Distribution areas, and minor wind damage to some roof-mounted equipment and perimeter fencing.
  • A generator at the plant provides emergency lighting, but all other power remains cut off.

Sunday, Sept. 14: Approximately 2 million local power customers remain without electricity, including the Houston plant. The city imposes a curfew on area residents to keep them off the streets from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

  • No employees have reported any injuries or other serious issues, although many roads remain flooded.
  • CCAT prepares for the possibility of a major disruption to the plant’s manufacturing capabilities, even though Houston has a seven-week inventory of Custom-Pak® Surgical Packs and a six-week inventory of consumable items.

Monday, Sept. 15: As electrical service slowly returns to the area, the plant’s maintenance team readies the site to be brought back online. The facility remains closed pending the restoration of power.

  • 82 employees, 45 contractors and four area Sales Representatives have checked in to report their status.
  • Repairs begin on the damaged perimeter fencing and rooftop equipment.
  • Another Around Alcon announcement is distributed, providing an update for employees on Houston’s condition.

Tuesday, Sept. 16: Some power is restored to Alcon Houston, although the plant remains closed until the power flow is uninterrupted. Computer servers and the building management system are slowly brought back online.

  • CCAT begins working on a method to notify Houston employees of the site’s re-opening, including the toll-free phone line and Corporate Security’s mass notification system.
  • To date, 256 employees, 118 contract employees and four Sales Reps have called in to report that they are safe.

Wednesday, Sept. 17: Four days after Hurricane Ike hits Houston, Alcon’s local facility re-opens for business at limited capacity with roughly 80 percent of its employees.

  • Although most flood waters have subsided, fuel in the area is scarce, making it difficult for employees to drive to work. CCAT begins exploring ways to provide either fuel or group transportation for employees.

Thursday, Sept. 18: Uninterrupted power is restored to the plant, although 1.8 million local residents are still without power – including two out of three of the facility’s employees.

  • The plant begins receiving deliveries, and is able to release outbound shipments of products.
  • Because of ongoing fuel shortages, Alcon purchases a 2,000 gallon fuel tank to provide gas for employees.

Friday, Sept. 19: Production at the plant hits 80 percent of normal capacity for Custom-Pak® Surgical Packs, with 70 percent production for consumables.

  • Alcon’s Corporate Giving department meets with Houston managers to determine relief efforts.
  • Bulk shipment of ice is ordered for employees and their families.

Monday, Sept. 22: CCAT holds final conference call as production returns to normal in Houston.

  • Fuel tank is delivered and filled the following day, allowing employees to acquire enough gas to commute to and from work. This remains in place for the next few weeks as area fuel supplies stabilize.

Lessons Learned

Whether in Houston, where local employees had to face Hurricane Ike head-on, or in Fort Worth, where managers were dealing with the logistics of the crisis from afar, preparation was the essential ingredient in Alcon’s successful approach.

“Being prepared, and having a structured crisis team in place and ready to react was imperative,” said Manager, Corporate Security Jeff Breeding, who serves as CCAT’s coordinator. “I think our successful response to this situation was due entirely to the preparedness of our employees across the board.”

Michael Speck, Alcon Houston’s General Manager, agreed, saying the value of a well-formed plan and fully informed employees cannot be overstated.

“The lessons we learned were almost all unique to the circumstances we faced after the hurricane, such as flooded roads, displaced employees and a lack of power and fuel,” he said. “There were no gaping holes in our plan or actions after the storm that prevented us from starting operations back up as soon as the power was back on. Given the mess we had to deal with, I’m very pleased with the way our team responded.”

Speck said the “preparation, planning, dedication and response by our employees” allowed Alcon to make the best of a situation that could have been much more damaging to the company.

“Many of our employees went above and beyond the call of duty to overcome numerous hardships to get back and continue to come to work each day,” he said. “I am extremely proud of the way we all worked together locally and with the CCAT team. We were never overwhelmed by the details and we always found ways to overcome every single obstacle we faced.”

Alcon’s Humanitarian Response

Although the Houston plant was spared from the worst of the devastation, the city and its infrastructure were severely damaged.

To help the charitable organizations that provided hot meals, comfort and shelter to those in need, The Alcon Foundation donated $50,000 to the Chisholm Trail chapter of the American Red Cross and $50,000 to The Salvation Army’s DFW Metroplex chapter. In all, the company’s relief effort surpassed $330,000.

Published by John Churchill

Writer, photographer, corporate communicator, traveler, father and lover of coffee, hiding out in beautiful Fort Worth, Texas.

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