Valero Energy underestimated benzene leak
As the storm raged, they fought to replenish their stores
Valero Energy “significantly underestimated” the amount of cancercausing benzene and other volatile compounds leaked from its Houston refinery during Hurricane Harvey, the EPA says.
Paul McGary watched floodwaters lap the curb near Houston’s Kroger warehouse, unable to cross the parking lot just hours after the rainfall began.
The supply chain manager had already worked overtime to speed grocery shipments to the company’s local stores as Hurricane Harvey barreled toward Texas and sent residents into a shelf raiding panic. As the storm began to engulf the Houston area that dark Saturday night, he drove to the distribution hub and found 90 employees marooned inside.
“That’s when I knew it was going to be a long process,” he said.
Harvey created a logistics nightmare that challenged area grocers to coordinate shipments from across the state and the nation in a rush that has only just begun to subside. More than two weeks after the storm made landfall, many companies are still orchestrating complex strategies to keep stores and warehouses stocked even as they return to near-normal operations.
Harvey’s deluge crimped the grocery supply chain by flooding roads, warehouses and stores, rendering regular deliveries impossible for days. It stranded truck drivers and associates and, in some cases, cut off power to refrigeration systems, forcing companies to
toss spoiled inventory and make costly repairs.
H-E-B, facing a transportation crisis in the wake of the storm, resorted to flying truck drivers from San Antonio to Houston by helicopter and borrowed 2,000 employees from other Texas markets to help the company ramp up operations here. Last week, some of its stores required extra hands to unload and stock as many as five truckloads of products a day.
The huge demand for water and supplies has continued to strain the supply chain. At one point, H-E-B sold one truckload of water at every store every 90 minutes, Houston division president Scott McClelland said.
“Just getting the pipeline filled backup with water has been a challenge ,” he said.
Fiesta Mart is still ironing out supply problems as distributors and manufacturers grapple with shortages exacerbated by Hurricane Irma’s surge through Florida. Customers are buying water, cleaning supplies, snacks and bread faster than the company can stock them. Inventory levels remain lower than usual in its roughly three dozen local stores.
“We’re still struggling to get product into Houston,” chief operating officer Mark Sellers said. “Demand is still high, and supply hasn’t kept up with demand.”
Kroger, with its national reach, relied heavily on distribution centers throughout the country to stock local stores in the depths of the storm. It’s still receiving extra shipments of products to refill its Houston warehouse after days of moving products at breakneck speed, a process that demonstrated the Herculean efforts required to restart grocery operations here after catastrophic flooding.
For McGary, the chaos began days before the sky clouded, when hurricane plans honed during earlier storms — Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 — came into play. He rented extra trailers and activated more pallet jacks and forklifts to whiz nonperishables through the cavernous facility in anticipation of the sort of prestorm rush that has swept the Houston area before.
But the process soon took on different dimensions as Harvey materialized into a seemingly unprecedented threat. On Friday, as the storm neared the coast, warehouse workers spent until midnight loading trucks with 265,000 cases of groceries, more than twice the usual volume.
The rush continued into Saturday as customers snatched last-minute items before the rain flooded Houston streets and highways in an overnight torrent. By 11:30 p.m., McGary tried to make it to the warehouse and found the parking lot impassable.
By Sunday morning, rising water had paralyzed the facility and stranded 20 drivers who had managed to make it onto the road. McGary joined a crisis call with the company’s logistics team to coordinate with suppliers and trucking companies to rush products into the market from distribution centers across the country.
But most stores remained inaccessible by truck on Monday, forcing the ones that had opened to sell through their inventory as desperate customers braved long lines and bad weather. Drivers remained reluctant to begin the journey to Houston as bands of heavy rainfall continued to pass over the city.
“They were watching the news and seeing the flooding everywhere,” McGary said. “A lot of distributors and carriers didn’t want to come in.”
Water around the warehouse receded enough on Tuesday to bring the facility back online. Employees who had for days slept on cots at last emerged, and stranded truck drivers who had spent up to 60 hours in their cabs finally made it off the road.
Deliveries, however, didn’t get much easier. Some drivers dispatched from the warehouse ran into high water and had to turn around before making it to the store.
As customer needs mounted and more stores opened, McGary and his team coordinated 100 truckloads of grocery shipments from Kroger facilities in Dallas, Kansas, Colorado, Tennessee and Georgia, as well as 60 loads of water from Pennsylvania. They constantly monitored traffic sites to find new routes into the city and managed to deliver stock to every open store for days on end.
At the warehouse earlier this week, the pace had slowed to some degree, but signs of the disaster lingered. Hundreds of cases of bleach waited for loading, and long aisles echoed with the sound of pallet jacks racing to stack groceries for delivery.
McGary said the disaster might influence the company’s preparation for future storms, but he credited his team’s long hours in the effort to move so much product despite the obstacles. Many of the 90 employees stuck in the warehouse worked through the night to stage goods for rapid delivery.
“One thing’ s for sure, we’ d never had this many people stranded,” McGary said. “We have to make sure we have more co ts next time .”
Anthony Burks works in Kroger’s distribution center at 701 Gellhorn. Hurricane Harvey was a logistics nightmare for grocers.
Kroger depended on distribution centers throughout the U.S. during the storm.
Workers load pallets earlier this week at Kroger’s distribution center near Interstate 10 and the East Loop.
Kroger supply chain manager Paul McGary credited his team’s long hours to move so many goods as key to getting through Hurricane Harvey.