In the space of just two minutes on the night of April 22, 2011, Lambert-St Louis International Airport’s Terminal 1 was transformed from a buzzing passenger thoroughfare, to a scene of utter devastation after a powerful tornado slammed into it.
A sudden change in the twister’s course put it on a direct path with the airport, giving staff little time to respond, but a swift evacuation of the building helped to prevent any deaths or serious injuries and garnered the airport plenty of praise, including the TSA’s ‘Airport of the Year’ security award, with a special mention going out to airport director, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, for her handling of the crisis.
But while Hamm-Niebruegge believes that the airport’s emergency procedures worked well at the moment of crisis, there proved to be plenty of valuable lessons to be learned in its aftermath.
“We looked at everything that had occurred to see what worked, what didn’t would work and what we could do better,” she explains.
“We had about 22 items we thought we could do better, and one of the good things was that many of them were very simple and easy to implement. For example, there were no shelter signs at the tornado shelters. Our staff knew where they were, but members of the public might not know that,” she adds.
Meetings over the following days with key stakeholders – including emergency services personnel, airlines station managers and government agencies, allowed Hamm-Niebruegge and her staff to form a coherent picture of everyone’s performance during the crisis.
While staff had managed to get Terminal 1’s power back online within 24 hours and had resumed operations in just three days, the airport remained literally in the dark in a number of areas.
Back-up generators – designed to keep essential systems running in the event of a black out – had worked, but as they did not provide ‘100%’ coverage, some passengers and staff had struggled to find a place to charge phones and lap tops following the disaster.
This also made it difficult to get airline fuel pumps back up and running and to assess any damage they had sustained.
To solve this problem, the airport has now included more power points to its back-up coverage and introduced monitoring systems.
A colour system is now in use with orange designating sockets that should still have juice.
Another issue that was identified was the lack of automated announcements to advise staff and passengers of what to do once the tornado had struck.
“We didn’t have automated announcements, and just after the disaster we wanted to put out an announcement to get everyone on message and reassure passengers, but somebody had to physically do that, to push the button. Now we have canned messages,” she comments.
In other cases, an element of luck had helped to limit the damage.
The fact that the 1950s era terminal building was “built like a fortress” helped it to withstand the 165mph winds experienced during the tornado, Hamm-Niebruegge explains, while a requirement to install shatter proof film over the terminal’s windows after 9/11 had helped limit broken glass being strewn through the terminal.
But for Hamm-Niebruegge, leadership proved to be the crucial ingredient in the airport’s handling of the tornado and any future crisis and she praises her top executives who have worked hard to ensure frontline staff are well prepared, well motivated and don’t view emergency drills as a “waste of time”.
Communication is key
While Lambert-St Louis faced the full wrath of Mother Nature, airports do not necessarily have to experience a major disaster at first hand to identify potential weaknesses in their emergency contingency plans.
Due to Peru’s position on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a huge horseshoe shaped fault line spanning the Pacific, planning for a future earthquake or tsunami has to be at the heart of Lima–Jorge Chavez International Airport’s emergency contingency planning.
So, when a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck off of the coast of Peru in 2007, officials at the gateway breathed a collective sigh of relief that they had been spared its full brunt – but they had not been left completely unaffected.
While an orderly evacuation of the airport did take place, CCTV remained unaffected and Lima’s facilities escaped with only minor damage, the volume of calls to emergency services and local power shortages led to a complete breakdown of the city’s telecommunications network – this had a serious impact on operations.
“Communication failed completely which was a major issue for operations, everything went down,” explains Sabine Trenk, the COO of Jorge Chavez International Airport.
“One of the first actions after that was to invest in a Terrestrial Trunked Radio (Tetra) system, which is completely separate from the phone lines.”
The event also led the Fraport Group majority-owned airport to revise and improve a number of key areas of its emergency procedures, including training in infrastructure inspection, improved signage to evacuation points, ordering more megaphones and flashlights and performing regular field simulations.
These take the form of a full-scale mock airport disaster, the last having taken place on November 30, during which every element of a disaster scenario is played out, from the initial fire service call out and evacuation of the facilities, right through to a fictitious press conference with staff standing in as probing journalists.
“We cannot prepare for every eventuality, but we can train staff to react in the most appropriate way,” explains Tenke.
Always be prepared
When When Hurricane Katrina struck the US in 2005, the world’s media attention was fixed on the humanitarian crisis in New Orleans, but what was sometimes overlooked at the time was the devastation wrought on the rest of the coast.
Towns and communities right across Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi were badly affected as was Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GPT), which sustained major damage and severe flooding, which closed the facility to commercial operations for several months.
For Bruce Frallic, who was executive director of GPT in 2005 and still holds that position today, the legacy of that day continues to influence every element of emergency planning.
“The book on Katrina is still being written for GPT. Everything we do is with Katrina in mind,” explains Frallic.
“We lost half of our passenger terminal for several months, significantly delayed completion of a terminal expansion that was in progress at the time, we lost our cargo building, car rental service facility and our FBO.
“You can’t plan for that. But you can mitigate the future losses from a similar event by building better and smarter. And that is what we have done in our expanded passenger terminal, new FBO, car rental and cargo operations and we will have wind resistant navigation aids and a new tower in 2012.”
While reconstruction has taken up a large chunk of the $287 million invested in GPT since 2005, a mixture of careful preparation before and close collaboration with stakeholders after the hurricane really paid off in minimising damage to property and saving lives, says Frallic.
“Katrina hit the coast in the middle of the night, the eye was about 40 miles wide and storm force winds took nearly eight hours to pass. Winds of up to 150 mph and storm surges as high as 32ft built up over two hours and lasted about four hours before they began to dissipate.
The airlines anticipated this and flew their last flights out in the early afternoon before the night the storm hit.
“The lesson learned is to ensure that the airlines have full information. This is done by having regular storm planning meetings with the airline station managers leading up to the event,” explains Frallic.
While airports will never be able to predict when, where or what force of nature may impact them, they can prepare themselves through training and contingency planning, and those that have experienced them first hand can prove invaluable in forming future benchmarking initiatives, helping to reduce damage to property and, most importantly, in saving lives.
Shock and awe