With this year’s hurricane season, 500-year storms now seem like ten-year events. And it’s become increasingly clear that processors need to be prepared for the worst.

While any architect will warn, “don’t build on the flood plain,” heeding that advice still may not prevent water ingress and damage for wind-driven rain and poor drainage areas. Getting that facility back up and running is a battle on many fronts.

Stellar is one A&E/C firm that has helped several clients recover in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding.

“Restoring a facility to safe operating condition is always the goal,” says Joseph Bove, PE, vice president, business development. “This includes food safety and the safety of the people inside the building.”

Bove lists four typical roles an A&E/C firm performs in helping a processor recover from a storm.

First, it analyzes the exterior envelope of the building to ensure it’s safe to restore and reoccupy. Second, it communicates with relevant municipalities regarding the building’s structural integrity. Third, the A&E/C provides redesign and construction services to repair damage. Fourth, the firm seeks out materials to rebuild.

Ensuring the structure is safe includes testing for possible ammonia leaks, checking for any unsafe electrical exposure and clearing any debris or leftover sandbags, says Bove.

Before a weather event, doors and windows may have been locked or boarded to prevent damage. It’s critical to remove these temporary measures and clear all exits so personnel can safely leave in the event of a fire, ammonia leak or other emergency.

High winds create other problems, such as partial removal of a roof.

“We recently had a tornado affect an ongoing project,” says Bove. “We visited the jobsite as soon as possible, pumped out the ammonia refrigeration and analyzed the roof to make sure it didn’t collapse while product was being removed.”

To prevent headaches associated with setbacks caused by extreme weather events, an effective plan should be created, says Dean Weber, facility & process engineering group manager for Wenck, an A&E firm with expertise in disaster recovery and emergency response services.

“Plan for emergencies by doing a proper hazard analysis to understand potential mitigation strategies,” he says.

Weber says the first step is to have a qualified emergency response contractor with a master services agreement in place review the facility and offer guidance well before any actual event.

“The value of having someone immediately available contractually, already familiar with your site, and with experience of getting these plants back on line quickly can be invaluable when disaster strikes,” he adds.

The following are some other recommendations Weber offers on planning for future weather events:

  • Locate transformers, switch gear, MCCs and control cabinets to mezzanines above the flood plain.
  • Place major pumps and other critical systems on elevated pads above the flood plain.
  • Install barriers around the facility.
  • When notified of a potential flooding condition, prepare and do a controlled shutdown of key systems like refrigeration, hazardous chemicals and electrical systems.

In terms of food safety, both USDA and FDA are explicitly clear about flood damage to crops, facility interiors, stored materials and equipment. Weber offers steps to be taken to ensure the plant is ready to resume production:

  • Have EPA/FEMA documentation of hazard assessment for engineering integrity and safety clearance for occupancy.
  • Dispose of any food and packaging materials that came in contact with floodwater or are spoiled. This can be a major effort and cost in a food facility.
  • Perform asbestos and mold cleanup, demolition, cleanup and repair of all areas and equipment as needed.
  • Do electrical systems safety checkout and component replacements.
  • Ensure water meets the applicable federal, state and local drinking water quality standards.
  • Sanitize and follow with microbiological testing and documentation.

Once all these steps have been carried out and a few days before a test run of the facility, a general heat treatment (125° to 135°F) or fumigation should be carried out, according to AIB’s  “Flood Disaster Recovery.”

Following the general heat treatment, a quality systems audit and inspection by the processor’s team is in order. The audit puts standard operating and sanitation procedures back into effect and shows what remaining work is left to be done. Upon completion, another audit by an independent third-party or FDA may be necessary prior to testing the plant.

The test run should serve to uncover any additional issues that need to be remediated while allowing for quality and microbial tests of processes and products. Post-flood recovery startup products should be placed on hold and tested to verify they pass all quality and food safety tests.

A processor may have observed the rules in site selection, but sometimes water ingress is a problem.

“If your facility experiences flooding, you must evaluate your floor,” says Stellar’s Bove. “Non-destructive testing can determine the condition of insulation and soil beneath the slab. If water penetrates through the flooring, insulation can become saturated. These materials must be dried out as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.”

Obviously, the higher the water level, the more potential for damage. But even with less than six inches of water on the floor, the subflooring can become saturated. The priority should be to test for moisture and take steps to mitigate the risk for mold growth.

Flooding caused by more than a foot or two of water can also damage and move walls and columns, which can create structural integrity issues, Bove says.

“This is one of the main issues we look for when analyzing a facility after major flooding,”

When it comes to motors, most processing equipment is washdown capable, says Bove, and therefore, the motors should be able to handle water. A preventive measure could be to make sure all equipment motors are waterproof when investing in processing equipment. It not only makes sense for easier cleaning, but it also reduces the risk of motor damage during a flood.

Another issue Bove points out has to do with drainage.

“My biggest recommendation is to establish redundant systems when it comes to drainage,” Bove says. “If your primary system fails or gets backed up, an extra pipe and/or alternate path to divert water can prevent major flooding. Designing this resiliency into your facility may cost more upfront, but it’s nothing compared to the costs associated with catastrophic flood damage.”

Processors should also ensure that the facility’s finished floor is built up higher than the surrounding areas so flood waters don’t drain into the facility, says Bove. To prevent damage and loss from heavy winds, ensure that exterior mechanical equipment has tie-downs or permanent anchorage to support it.

It can also be helpful to have a diesel generator on site in the event of a power loss, says Bove.

These commercial-grade generators can cost up to $750,000, so instead of buying one, many plant owners opt to rent one in case of an emergency.

However, in either case — buy or rent a generator — a processor can save itself a big headache by prepping its electrical work to make the proper connection to the generator.

Installing proper wiring and disconnect switches for a future generator can cost about $50,000, but that investment can make the difference between taking a few hours or a few days in making a successful connection — time that matters in a storm.

While getting facilities back up and running after a flood event is a top priority, vehicles are just as important.

“All food transport vehicles that have been subjected to flood waters should be decontaminated before being returned to service to transport or store food,” says Wenck’s Weber. “If not decontaminated, they should be used for other purposes or decommissioned and/or placed in salvage.”

The decontamination of transport vehicles such as trucks, rail cars and cold storage units should be performed by personnel qualified to provide such services, adds Weber.

Some sources of information for disaster/flood damage recovery:

FDA: Produce & Plant Products: Evaluating the Safety of Flood-affected Food Crops for Human Consumption (October 2011) 

FDA: Safety of Food Affected by Hurricanes, Flooding, and Power Outages

FDA: Guidance for Industry: Evaluating the Safety of Flood-affected Food Crops for Human Consumption

USDA: Flooding: A Checklist for Small and Very Small Meat, Poultry, and Egg Processing Plants

USDA: Questions & Answers Identifying Food Safety And Other Issues In Areas Affected By Natural Disasters

North Dakota Department of Health: Flood Preparedness and Response for Food Establishments

Frequently Asked Questions About Handling Flooded Produce (Published: May 4, 2017 University of Missouri)

A Guide To Food Safety In Emergencies (Department of Consumer Protection, State of Connecticut

Special Report: Flood Disaster Recovery,” Ole Dosland, AIB Quarterly, Summer 2006, hosted at Iowa Department of Public Health.

Food Plant Emergency Response: Preparing for a Hurricane,” Blog, Stellar.

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