Riding out the storm, together, inside a refinery - Energy Factor
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Riding out the storm, together, inside a refinery

Oct. 24, 2017

As a console supervisor within the country’s second-largest refinery and chemical plant, Arce Sambilay oversees teams that operate the chemical plant’s control systems. He is comfortable making on-the-spot decisions that require seamless timing and depend on precise measurements.

He just can’t cook.

While Sambilay’s normal job description at ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery doesn’t call for cooking skills, some familiarity in the kitchen would have helped when he was part of a 12-member volunteer, live-in crew during Hurricane Harvey.

“There was enough food, but not a lot of us are good cooks,” said Sambilay, describing his four days living in ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery. “Luckily, we had one person who was very good at that.”

Sambilay’s experience during Harvey represents only a fleeting look at life for the nearly 800 employees who hunkered down across the Texas Gulf Coast to monitor and maintain facilities the company shut down in advance of the storm. Live-in crews repaired whatever could be fixed at the time and ensured equipment remained secure during flooding.

Their lives toggled between off- and on-duty. They found sleep when possible, pitched in where they could, and braved the elements in-between torrential downpours – all while checking in with families, some of whom were stranded at home, without power.

Much of the work in Baytown entailed sending out crews to survey problems that control-room personnel detected from their monitors. Even with the facility offline, the crews still had to fix equipment that was vital in monitoring core functions.

If a transmitter went offline, for example, it could affect a temperature reading for a turbine. Ireneo Castillo, an instrument specialist at the Olefins Plant in Baytown, was not on the live-in team, but he was in regular contact with those who were.

“They’d go out there and fix the problem as safely and efficiently as possible,” he said of his team. “Sometimes they’d only have 30 minutes before the next downpour would come through.”

Steve Garcia is a chemical plant process safety coordinator in Baytown, as well as a member of the plant’s emergency response team. Garcia was one of 20 emergency workers who stayed in the Baytown facility, splitting up into two teams to provide coverage as Harvey battered the area.

“You worked your shift, and then you tried to have some off-time,” Garcia said. “You’d put out an air mattress and try to take a nap. You never left. So, during that off-time, you spent a lot of time on the phone with your family, making sure they were okay at home, and reassuring them you were safe.”

Those who volunteered provided a critical function during punishing conditions, according to Steve Hart, vice president of supply and transportation, and coordinator of the company’s response plan during and after Harvey. Those who stayed helped not only secure those facilities, but also accelerated the return of needed gasoline and fuels into the market.

“Our people realize the work they do will not be fully seen by the public,” Hart said. “This is our job, to get the equipment and supplies back online as quickly as possible.”

Tags: refinery, Hurricane Harvey, Baytown
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