Operations

How Fleets Prepare for and Respond to Severe Weather

October 2017, Government Fleet - Feature

by Tariq Kamal - Also by this author

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockford, Texas, in the early-morning hours of Aug. 26, after intensifying from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane as it moved westward across the Gulf of Mexico. As of Aug. 31, the hurricane had taken the lives of at least 38 Texans and was projected by some estimates to have caused more than $100 billion in damages. That would make Harvey the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

An event on the scale of Hurricane Harvey is exceedingly rare. But every part of the country experiences nature’s wrath at some point, and municipal fleet managers may be tasked with helping or leading the effort to prepare for the worst. Government Fleet met with city officials from around the nation to learn how they prepare for and respond to severe weather.

New Orleans Has a Plan

More than 10 years had passed since Hurricane Katrina when Christopher Melton took over as fleet manager for the City of New Orleans in 2016. But only four years had passed since Hurricane Isaac struck the city, causing widespread damage, including $50,000 worth to Melton’s own home. This February, the largest tornado in the city’s history carved a path of destruction, and in late August and early September, the city was deluged by heavy rainfall from Hurricane Harvey.

At a Glance

Fleets faced with natural disasters have:

  • Established a rainy day fund to cover costs until federal emergency funds arrive
  • Created a continually evolving emergency plan
  • Rethought their insurance policies
  • Reduced reliance on outside vendors.

To say emergency response planning is a big part of Melton’s job would be an understatement. The city has a plan to evacuate fleet vehicles used by nonessential personnel. But the majority of the city’s 2,400-plus-vehicle fleet belongs to the police, fire, and EMS departments, and many of the vehicles assigned to the parks, sanitation, and public health divisions are mobilized during severe weather events or as part of recovery efforts.

“We have a very good structure for how to move vehicles and manage refueling, all of which I inherited on day one,” Melton said. “That was a huge benefit to me. Once I read it, I had a very good understanding of what my role and my department’s role was and what we had to do.”

When a hurricane is brewing, gas tanks are topped off on a daily basis. When emergency vehicles or generators run low, a 500-gallon fuel truck can be dispatched to refill their tanks. When city vehicles navigate flooded areas, punctures are a persistent threat, and Melton’s department is responsible for swapping them out — quickly.

“You may have a first responder who needs to jump a 7-inch concrete curb. He knows it could cause a puncture, but it’s his job to reach the scene. Our job is to support that first responder,” he said.

Severe Weather By the Numbers

8 Inches: The diameter of the largest known hailstone in U.S. history, which landed near Vivian, S.D., in July 2010. Source: National Weather Service
18 miles per hour: The fastest a 1/8-inch raindrop can fall before friction breaks it into smaller drops. Source: The Naked Science Forum
Minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit: The approximate temperature at which most blends of gasoline will freeze. Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
600 trillion watts: The power generated by the average hurricane — 200 times the entire world’s electrical generating capacity. Source: PBS
75.8 inches:The recorded snowfall in Silver Lake, Colo., over a 24-hour period in April 1921 — a U.S. record. Source: The Weather Channel
134 degrees Fahrenheit: The world’s highest recorded temperature, in Death Valley, Calif., on July 10, 1913. Source: Discovery

When large numbers of vehicles suffer damage, they are triaged first by repair type and then by how urgently each vehicle’s services are needed. But all events are not created equal — localized flooding could shut down a city-owned or outsourced repair facility; a citywide event would trigger New Orleans’ continuity-of-operations plan and mutual-aid agreements with neighboring parishes and the State of Louisiana.

“Our goal is to mitigate loss, prevent further damage, and repair the facilities to return them to service,” Melton said.

Because protecting lives and property are the primary concern, Melton said, the city has created a “rainy day” fund and established lines of credit that can fund recovery efforts while officials await emergency funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Few U.S. cities experience as many severe-weather events as New Orleans, but Melton believes every community can benefit from a fleet-driven response. He urges municipal fleet managers to reach out to their peers in other public agencies and seek advice. Having relied and improved upon the plan he inherited, he recognizes its enduring value.

“I have never met my predecessor’s predecessor, but I look at his plan multiple times every year,” Melton said. “Make one today, and 20 years down the line, someone will feel the same way about your plan.”

Nearly half of Lakewood, Colo.’s municipal fleet was damaged by a hailstorm that struck the Denver
area in May. Photo courtesy of City of Lakewood
Nearly half of Lakewood, Colo.’s municipal fleet was damaged by a hailstorm that struck the Denverarea in May. Photo courtesy of City of Lakewood

Life in Hail

The most expensive natural disaster in Colorado history wasn’t a winter snowstorm or a summer wildfire. On May 8, a severe thunderstorm dropped golf ball- and baseball-size hail on the western side of the Denver metropolitan area. Total insured losses came to $1.4 billion.

At least 187 of the vehicles owned by the City of Lakewood — nearly half of the fleet’s rolling stock — were damaged, according to Nina Hoffert, CAFM, fleet manager.

“It was one of those things that just happened,” Hoffert said, noting that hail is often predicted but rarely seen. “The forewarning we had was — and this is not unusual for Denver — ‘thunderstorms and possible hail.’ Ninety percent of the time, the hail doesn’t hit you … You watch for it, but it’s not as if the world comes to a halt.”

Lakewood has partnered with a private insurance company, and Hoffert said the city’s risk management division is rethinking its policy in the wake of the storm. The questions at hand include whether the cost of comprehensive coverage for every vehicle can be justified and whether to maintain exclusions, including one based on geography: The policy was written to cover vehicles at a handful of “official” locations in the city. Several police units parked at the site of a homicide investigation sustained hail damage and were not covered.

The fleet’s recovery began at 6 a.m. the next day and will take more than a year to complete. The damage included broken windshields, windows, GPS antennae, and emergency lights, and chipped vinyl wraps. Then there are the thousands of dents and dings. Some vehicles have undergone or are awaiting paintless dent repair; the others will be hammered out in local body shops.

Until then, many of the city’s body-damaged fleet vehicles will remain in service. They don’t appear out of place in Lakewood, Hoffert said, where the streets are filled with pockmarked cars and trucks.

“There are lots of them driving around,” she explained. “The shops are backed up until February. We might get a little priority, especially for a police car, but we’re in line like everyone else.”

Bragging Rights

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

When the Snow Falls

Six years into his tenure as the assistant superintendent for Hartford, Conn.’s Department of Public Works, Mark Fontaine has made several moves designed to save the city money and improve its readiness for heavy snowfall.

Hartford’s “snow season” now begins in July, when the city’s heavy-equipment fleet executes a dry run of the city’s snow-response plan. Garbage trucks and dump trucks are now equipped for leaf removal as well as snow removal. Fontaine has invested in equipment such as truck-size snow blowers, horizontal clamp shells, wing claws, and tink claws, all adept at navigating and dispatching the massive piles of snow plowed up from city streets. A blue-light system installed at key intersections alerts drivers that a curb-to-curb clearing is imminent and they should park in designated, city-owned emergency lots.

For all the practice and planning, however, costly damage to vehicles and equipment is the “nature of the beast,” Fontaine said. “Looking at a 10-foot pile of snow, you have no clue what’s inside. We’ve chewed up shopping carts, motorcycles, and street pole studs. It’s incredible.”

The city is self-insured, but budgetary concerns have compelled Fontaine to rethink every aspect of his department’s preparation, right down to the number of replacement blades in inventory and the exact amount of brine-producing magnesium chloride and calcium chloride on hand. (A typical snowstorm requires up to 55 tons of magnesium chloride alone.) Reducing the city’s reliance on outside vendors has been a key objective over the past four years, and Fontaine and his staff take pride in working 12- to 36-hour shifts in response to a heavy snowfall.

“When I started, we had a lot of vendor support,” he said. “We put our thinking caps on. We would rather have our guys get better at what we do. And why should we be paying someone else anyway?” 

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