Valero En­ergy un­der­es­ti­mated ben­zene leak

As the storm raged, they fought to re­plen­ish their stores

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Kather­ine Blunt

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 .”

Melissa Phillip pho­tos / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

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.

Melissa Phillip pho­tos / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

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.

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