The destruction wrought by extreme weather is often spectacular in its devastation, but the quiet threat of subsequent chemical release can be just as deadly. Damage to infrastructure can lead to toxic substances like chlorine or ammonia contaminating our air and water. While this scenario is probably not top-of-mind for most people when high winds and pouring rain are bearing down on their community, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) anticipates and prepares for this possibility.
“Emergency response decision makers need critical information about chemical hazards in order to keep their communities safe,” said Dr. Shannon Fox, director of S&T’s Chemical Security Analysis Center (CSAC). “Using science-based chemical threat and hazard analysis, CSAC stands ready to assist emergency planning, preparedness, and response efforts during natural and human-induced disasters.”
Chemical security experts provide a 24/7 Technical Assistance hotline (410.417.0910) and execute crucial modeling and analysis on a variety of chemical hazards, vulnerabilities, and incidents—including tropical storms, hurricanes and other severe weather conditions.
The more than 14 million people along the United States’ Gulf Coast, and more than 32 million people along the Atlantic Coast, are frequently under threat from tropical storms and hurricanes. The frequency of severe storms has been increasing, with dozens of named storms originating in the Atlantic in recent years. With each storm, actionable information about potential chemical hazards must be readily accessible to emergency planners and first responders at a moment’s notice. It can mean the difference between life and death for scores of people in communities across the country where residential areas are near industrial facilities or are transited by trucks or rail systems that transport chemicals.
In August 2020, CSAC provided critical and time-sensitive information to support emergency response efforts when Hurricane Laura ignited a chlorine leak at a BioLab facility near Lake Charles, Louisiana—just one example of the nearly 70 requests CSAC receives per year. CSAC takes six vital steps to support preparedness and resiliency in the face of extreme weather:
- Quickly gather information on chemical facility infrastructure in the storm’s path. CSAC collects information from partners and open source data on chemical facility infrastructure in the projected path of the tropical storm.
- Assess the danger posed by chemicals held within facilities likely to be in the storm’s path. CSAC assesses the properties of chemicals produced and stored by the facilities identified to understand all hazards they pose if released.
- Understand the storm’s characteristics. CSAC uses sophisticated modeling to assess the effects of storm surges and high winds, particularly on power generation, which may pose a grave threat to chemical facility infrastructure and related operations and processes that promote safety.
- Identify when the storm will hit and assess the potential damage. CSAC assesses the time to landfall of the storm and provides analyses and actionable information on the potential impact of damaged chemical facilities.
- Remain in close contact with emergency response planners. CSAC works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and specifically FEMA’s Interagency Modeling and Atmospheric Assessment Center, to provide chemical hazard support to FEMA’s national and regional assets.
- Provide direct information to those in the field who are responding to the storm. CSAC supports the National Guard’s Civil Support Teams for on-the-ground activities before landfall and events as they occur during and post storm evaluation.
CSAC is the nation’s only federal laboratory dedicated to assessing threats associated with large-scale chemical incidents or chemical terrorism using research, analysis, and knowledge management. The lab’s capabilities meet urgent mission needs of DHS operational components and partners, including stemming the flow of illicit opioids, preparing for and responding to harmful chemical releases, and safeguarding our food supply, among others.
For more information on CSAC’s mission and capabilities, visit: https://www.dhs.gov/science-and-technology/csac.