What the Husky Energy Oil Refinery fire looked like just before I evacuated.
Just the other day, I told someone that one of the reasons I write this blog was to share all the weird things that happen to me. (For the rest of the reasons this blog came to being, read here.)
Well, yesterday, something weird happened to me and about twenty-thousand other people in Superior, Wisconsin. I was at work, minding my own worky business, when a loud noise caught my attention. It sounded like an electrical transformer blowing. The lights dimmed briefly, then came back to full brightness.
“That can’t be good,” I mused.
Not long after, a plume of black smoke snaked into the sky outside my window. It looked like it might have been a couple of blocks away. “I hope the fire department knows about that,” I thought, more concerned now.
As it turns out, the fire was two miles away. News reports started to trickle in that the local oil refinery owned by Husky Energy was the site of an explosion. Those same early reports said that twenty casualties occurred, but that the “nature of the casualties was unknown.”
That struck me as weird. I don’t mean to sound callous, but dead is dead, right? I think to most people the word “casualties” means “dead” although I guess a secondary meaning of it is “injuries.” It would have been much more responsible for the reporter to use the word “injuries” instead of “casualties.” It must have been very alarming for people who had loved ones working at the refinery. In the end, only eleven people were injured, not killed.
By this point, it was time for me to head out for lunch. Before I left the office, good former journalist that I am, I alerted my less-informed coworkers about the refinery situation.
When I returned from lunch, the plume of smoke was much larger and blacker, more like a storm instead of snake. It looked like the whole refinery was burning!
I quickly logged into my computer for news updates. They confirmed that the fire was spreading in the refinery. Thanks to my Facebook friends, I saw that there was an evacuation order for the part of the city that included my office, which is considered part of the University of Wisconsin-Superior (UWS), although I work off-campus.
With the inky black blob of smoke growing larger and larger out my window, I didn’t need much more convincing to leave.
The evacuation traffic jam, heading toward the Blatnik Bridge to Duluth.
In consult with my coworkers, I left the office at 1:30 p.m., grabbing work that I could do at home. Apparently, many others had heard the news too, and the streets were now jammed with cars. As I waited in stop-and-go traffic, I started receiving safety alert texts on my phone from the city of Superior and UWS.
They conflicted, however. The city text (at 1:43 p.m.) said there was an evacuation order in effect for an area that included the university. But the university was saying that the campus was NOT under an evacuation order. It wasn’t until 4:13 p.m. that UWS said the campus was in the evacuation zone. That sounds like another bit of a HUGE communication problem.
At this point, maybe you’re wondering why I feel qualified to critique the communications in this incident. I know from experience that crisis communications can be hard and fraught with error. I used to be a wildfire information office and public affairs specialist for the Forest Service. I’ve had all the incident command systems trainings and keep current by participating in local oil spill drill exercises. I’ve also gone to several specialized workshops in crisis communications at conferences and have trained people in media relations.
I’ve learned that often, communication problems are matters of the “right hand” not knowing what the “left hand” is doing in incidents due to the fast pace of changes. Sometimes, it’s also because the incident commanders aren’t looping in the professional communicators into their meetings and discussions. And sometimes it’s because the person chosen as a spokesperson for the media isn’t properly trained.
Once I was safe at home – a trip that took twice as long as usual – I watched the livestream by the local ABC-TV affiliate news station, which was offering continuous coverage. The reporters were all doing a great job sticking to the facts and providing helpful information to residents. Then came a news conference by the incident command team. I missed the names of most of the speakers, but I recognized the mayor of Superior as one of them.
The main spokesman seemed to be doing all he could to deflect questions and NOT provide information, saying things like, “That’s the purview of our operations department. You’d have to ask them.” The mayor, in contrast, was much more skilled in his replies – much more human and less bureaucratic. His Facebook updates were also very professional and timely.
As the news conference progressed, I was getting more and more frustrated with the main spokesman. Then he belittled a female reporter’s question about the nature of the fire she was seeing, saying something like, “What you’re seeing is a combination of oxygen and combustion happening.” I got so pissed off, I turned off the livestream.
Yes, reporters sometimes ask dumb questions, but I suspect the fact that the questioner was a female had something to do with the nature of his dismissive reply to her.
By the evening, the fire had burned itself out. Fire crews couldn’t fight the fire due to the risks involved with all the other combustibles in the refinery, so that’s basically what they had to let it do. Places were found for all the college students evacuated from residence halls. Children from the nearby schools had been reunited with their parents.
Nobody died, which is a blessing. The environment is probably screwed up because gobs of asphalt spilled out of a hole in one of the huge tanks. I suspect we’ll hear more about that and other lingering effects in the future.
But for today, the evacuation order is lifted and people are returning to their homes. Life is returning to normal. Campus is still closed so I am working at home, but my office should look the same once I go back.
Although there were some glitches along the way, things could have been a lot worse. And for that, I, and probably a whole lot of other people, are thankful.