P.2 ~ Offshore at 60: Industry response to hurricanes evolved in early years

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Hurricanes in the 1950s

By the late 1950s the industry seemed confident that risks from hurricanes could be effectively managed using the prevailing projections of the power and frequency of 25-year storms. In 1956 and 1957, two storms put this approach to the test. When Hurricane Flossie moved through the western edge of Louisiana's offshore development in September 1956, industry spokesmen called its 110 mph winds and 15 to 20-ft waves the "first real hurricane test" for offshore operators in the post-war era. The lack of fatalities or substantial damage offshore led to the sort of overly optimistic conclusions voiced by one reporter: "The greatest fears of the offshore oil operators have been dispelled by the arrival of Hurricane Flossie." This "full-blown hurricane" had shown conclusively that the industry's "engineering estimates were correct."

In June 1957, Audrey, a genuine "full-blown" Category 4 hurricane, skirted Louisiana's western-most offshore installations and inflicted about $16 million in offshore damages before moving ashore at Cameron and killing 400 to 500 people. At the time, it was the deadliest hurricane in the region since the Galveston storm of 1900. The industry gained confidence from the fact that offshore facilities fared much better than onshore structures in Cameron. One news article concluded that "forethought minimized hurricane damage to offshore installations." No workers lost their lives on platforms, although two workers evacuated from platforms reportedly died after returning to Cameron in an effort to protect their homes. Despite "scars" left by Audrey, the industry had "scored an overwhelming though costly victory."

Rough waters in the 1960s

The offshore industry tackled an array of challenging technical problems in the decade after Audrey with a sense that the hurricane problem had been contained, if not solved, by research, measurements, and experience. Yet the design criteria used by various offshore companies still differed sharply for the same wave height considerations. Each company chose a level of safety based on its willingness to accept risks, placing its bets on what it considered the right combination of safety and cost for particular projects.

In 1964 through 1969, three devastating hurricanes called these bets. Hilda (October 1964) and Betsy (1965) both measured as "100-year" storms; then four years later in August 1969, Hurricane Camille, labeled a "four-hundred year storm," roared through the central Gulf. These storms showed conclusively that the offshore industry as a whole had greatly underestimated the potential frequency and power of severe hurricanes.

Despite its small size, Hilda packed a big punch near its tightly packed eye, which moved through a well-developed offshore producing area and "really tore things up." It left more than $100 million in damage offshore – much more than any previous storm. By destroying 13 platforms and damaging five others beyond repair, Hilda delivered a jolt of reality to an industry grown complacent about the power of major hurricanes.

Move toward cooperation

The unexpected magnitude of Hilda's destruction drew 64 concerned offshore operators to a spontaneous meeting at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans in November 1965. Griff Lee described this meeting as "a turning point for the industry. Before then, it had been every man for himself. This put together a cooperative spirit."

The meeting began with a somewhat apologetic speech by weather consultant A.H. Glenn, who addressed a question on everyone's mind: what exactly was meant by the phrase "25-year storm?" Glenn's lecture on the difficulties of defining a 25-year or a 100-year storm and the distinctions between a 100-year storm and a 100-year wave no doubt caused many in the room to question why they had ever been confident that hurricane conditions could be accurately predicted. When Glenn sat down, representatives of individual companies somberly described the damage they had suffered.

Griff Lee reviewed "the complete failure" of a major platform his company recently had installed for Union Oil. He included a pointed reminder that the company had used Glenn's predictions of the forces generated by a 25-year storm in designing the platform, and that an examination of the wreckage made it clear that Glenn's estimates had been much too low. Indeed, Lee noted that all but one of the platforms destroyed by Hilda had been designed to meet the projected forces of a 25-year storm. Lee argued that these platforms had been "designed with the owner accepting a risk" that "the 25-year storm was only going to occur once in the whole Gulf of Mexico every 25 years, and if I'm lucky it will be over by your platform, not by mine." He admonished the group to cut through the uncertainty about wind and wave forces by moving toward design criteria based on the forces generated by a 100-year storm.

Unfortunately, another big storm struck before those at the meeting could apply his advice. In September 1965, Hurricane Betsy emerged in the Atlantic, crossed Florida, and moved through the eastern coast of Louisiana in an area with extensive offshore investments. The storm destroyed eight platforms and damaged others. One event in Betsy came to symbolize the dangers of hurricanes.Maverick, a state-of-the art jackup drilling rig owned by the Zapata Corp. simply disappeared in the storm, providing still another unmistakable warning that the industry had underestimated the risks from large hurricanes.

These risks were particularly high for mobile drilling rigs of the era, which experienced a series of fatal accidents in the formative years offshore. One large Houston-based insurance company acknowledged that "tremendous risks" posed by drilling rigs required "extra efforts" from insurers. Others in the underwriting business continued to debate whether mobile rigs should be insured as vessels or drilling rigs, with workers considered "landlubbers or seamen." The compromise struck was to make the rigs safer by requiring inspections by experienced naval architects during construction and then having qualified naval engineers aboard while they were under tow. This compromise satisfied Lloyd's and others and avoided an insurance crisis.

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