Offshore at 60: Industry response to hurricanes evolved in early years

1407offpratt Thumb

Operators began to work cooperatively following the storms of the 1960s

Joseph A. Pratt
University of Houston

In September 1969, a sobering headline greetedOffshore readers: "Camille knocks out 300,000 b/d and costs industry $100 million." The article mapped the path of this mammoth Category 5 hurricane, whose "tremendous wave forces" and 200 mph winds caused extensive damage to offshore facilities before the storm made landfall near Biloxi, Mississippi. Camille and two smaller hurricanes that came before it – Hilda in 1964 and Betsy in 1965 – destroyed more than property; they also destroyed complacency about hurricanes that had grown during the early years of offshore operations.

Defining hurricane risks

When the oil industry moved offshore into the Gulf of Mexico, it plunged into an ocean of ignorance. Griff Lee, a design engineer for Humble Oil and then for offshore construction giant McDermott, aptly summarized the situation facing the industry in 1945: "There had been no construction of open frame structures in open water before." Existing data on the wave and wind forces exerted on seawalls or on ships at sea could not predict the forces exerted by hurricanes on production platforms fixed to the ocean's floor. How strong would the winds blow? How high could hurricane-driven waves be expected to crest? How solid was the foundation provided by the soft, sandy bottom of the Gulf of Mexico? How much would companies spend to improve platform safety?

While research by companies, consultants, and academics gradually generated data to answer these questions, those eager to explore for oil offshore took on great risks from hurricanes amid considerable uncertainty. When problems arose, engineers and construction specialists within the individual oil companies joined forces with their counterparts in offshore construction and service companies to solve them "on the run."

1407offpratt Thumb

Click to Enlarge

The devastating path and impact of Hurricane Camille on offshore facilities, as described in the September 1969 issue of Offshore.

One important source of information was the US Army's oceanography and weather service, which had created a corps of well-trained specialists who forecast weather for use in planning amphibious landings in World War II. Former "weather officers" such as A.H. Glenn and W.H. Munk created consulting firms to advise offshore companies on conditions offshore. Other weather officers joined the oceanography department at Texas A&M in cooperative efforts with industry specialists to measure wave heights. These men also worked to improve forecasts of hurricanes and also to "hindcast," using data from past hurricanes to project the path and intensity of future hurricanes.

Nature was kind to the pioneers of the offshore industry. They arrived at the right shore at the right time. The Gulf sloped gently out, allowing companies to move gradually into deeper waters as they developed new technologies. During a lull in major hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, offshore expansion went forward without severe damage from major storms.

Unfortunately, this unusual lull encouraged the development of unrealistic design standards for managing risks from hurricanes. In the mid-1950s, one prominent consulting firm advised clients that "in 100 ft of water waves will probably seldom, if ever, exceed 20 ft in height." Decks thus should be placed "20 ft above the still water line." Another firm led by a respected former weather officer concluded that maximum wave heights would be about 25 ft and recommended deck heights of 32 ft above the water. There was even less agreement on how often major storms might occur in the Gulf. "Guesstimates" of maximum wave heights hovered between 20-30 ft for 25-year storms in the Gulf, with such storms predicted to occur perhaps once every 40 to 50 years for a particular offshore region.

After a series of small, weak hurricanes offshore Texas and Louisiana from 1947-1956 called these estimates into question, several of the largest offshore companies chose to buy an extra measure of safety by building higher platforms. Humble's Arthur Guy explained this new attitude with a simple sentence: "Error (on the side of greater safety) is cheap." The definition of "cheap" differed for smaller companies, however, and many of them proved willing to take "calculated risks" that their platforms would survive with lower decks. Expanded helicopter service made possible rapid evacuation of platforms, greatly reducing the likelihood of fatalities in their calculations.

Effective evacuations also required more accurate and up-to-date weather forecasting. Before the age of weather satellites, the US Weather Service simply could not deliver the quality of forecast information needed by offshore companies, who turned to meteorologists from private consulting firms when in doubt about storms.

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.

API Offshore Committee

Greater cooperation was needed to define better design standards, and a meeting after Betsy of offshore operators at the Rice Hotel in Houston agreed to create what became the API's Offshore Committee. Under the auspices of the industry's major trade association, this committee gradually became a permanent focal point of industry efforts to limit future damage from hurricanes. It provided the organizational framework needed by the offshore fraternity to manage a systematic, continuing effort to define best practices in offshore design, and spread them throughout the industry.

Hurricane Camille in August 1969 strikingly and convincingly demonstrated the need for such an effort. Camille' Category 5 onslaught produced waves that Shell measured at 70 to 75-ft high. This figure stunned offshore veterans who remembered early "expert" predictions that waves in the Gulf would "seldom if ever, exceed 20 ft." Of course, thirty years of experience and the movement into deeper water had replaced such early guesses with higher and higher figures. But 70 ft made a mockery of the common wisdom about wave heights.

Before Camille ripped apart the region around Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1969, it passed through a heavily developed offshore region south and east of New Orleans. Initial estimates of $100 million in damages raised concerns about what the toll might have been had the storm taken a track through the heart of offshore alley 100 mi to the west. The quality, as well as the quantity, of damage drew much attention. Included in the structures destroyed were three state-of-the-art platforms installed by Shell, the generally acknowledged leader in offshore design. One of these was only five months old and at the time held the world record depth for a deepwater platform.

The impact of mudslides

As if this were not bad enough, Camille washed up a new design problem. Shell's state-of-the-art platform in 300 ft of water had been designed to withstand "100-year waves," but a mudslide caused by the storm, not wave forces alone, destroyed the structure, which came to rest on its side some 100 ft away from its original site. Before Camille, platform designers had not anticipated that extremely powerful hurricanes might create mudslides strong enough to topple platforms. Camille dramatically altered the contours of the ocean floor, in effect, placing standing platforms into deeper water. This stunning development spurred a race to understand mudslides and find ways to design platforms that could withstand them.

Lessons learned

By 1970, the process of adaptation to hurricanes had reached a turning point. The offshore industry had pushed ahead for a quarter of a century, solving engineering problems on the run. It had used the best available estimates of hurricane-generated forces and then adapted these standards after they were called into question by additional research or by damage caused by hurricanes. The major hurricanes in the 1960s removed much of the uncertainty about the power of severe storms in the Gulf, and the offshore industry responded by taking a hard, collective look at its traditional assumptions. One result was the creation of the API's Offshore Committee, a new venue for cooperation on offshore design and safety. The sharing of basic research on various aspects of offshore operations also went forward after 1969 at the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), an annual meeting where industry specialists discussed research on all aspects of offshore technology. At the same time, increasingly powerful computers gave researcher an important new tool with which to gather and interpret data.

This was good timing for the offshore industry. As it learned to cooperate to better manage the risks from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, it stood on the threshold of an era of new demands from an array of natural forces. Beginning in the 1960s, in rapid succession the industry confronted earthquakes off Southern California, harsh and unpredictable storms in the North Sea, arctic conditions offshore Alaska and Canada, and unprecedented new demands associated with operations in deeper waters. Hurricanes in the formative years of the Gulf of Mexico offered useful lessons with which the industry could face these challenges: victories over nature are never permanent; complacency, not nature, is the real enemy; error on the side of greater safety is cheap.

The author


Joseph A. Pratt is NEH-Cullen Professor of History and Business at the University of Houston's main campus. Dr. Pratt is a leading historian of the petroleum industry, and has been a consultant for the PBS mini-series on the oil industry, The Prize, and for the American Experience documentary on the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. He has conducted several hundred interviews of offshore engineers and executives for the Offshore Energy Center's Hall of Fame oral history project. For a fully referenced version of this article, contact him atjoepratt@Central.UH.EDU.

More in Home